The planes of tomorrow

Networked, unmanned aircraft to play strong military role<@VM>DARPATech: Parade of technology

DARPA ponders radical change to networks

To achieve its vision of network-driven warfare, DARPA is taking a hard look at radically improving -- or discarding
altogether -- some long-held network fundamentals.

"The packet network paradigm probably needs to change," said Col. Tim Gibson, program manager for DARPA's Advanced Technology Office. "I'm not advocating throwing out the Internet Protocol completely, but we absolutely must have some mechanism for assigning network capabilities to different users, and that capability has to scale to large numbers of devices automatically.

"Static networks are no good for tomorrow's battlefield, because everything will move around all the time," Gibson said. "What we need is dynamic scalability."

DARPA wants to fund development of new protocols or enhancements to Internet Protocol that will let nodes, such as computers, automatically sign on to networks in their vicinity.

Another aspect that hampers network flexibility is the seven-layer Open Systems Interconnection stack, long the foundation for building network protocols.

The model was not designed for wireless devices, said Reggie Brothers, a DARPA program manager.

"The model served us pretty well for the stable, predictable world of wireline communications," Brothers said. "Mobile networks are nothing like that. They are unpredictable and highly variable. We need to think of different layers of the stack relating to one another directly, like a mesh, instead of one level up to the next."

In Iraq, Global Hawk UAVs, developed by DARPA and Northrop Grumman, surveyed battle areas and sent back intelligence data.

The skies of tomorrow's battlefields will be darkened by swarms of networked, self-propelled attack aircraft, if research that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency wants comes to fruition.

And the Defense Department will need assistance from systems integrators to make this happen.

At the annual DARPATech conference last month in Anaheim, Calif., program managers described the new types of technologies the agency wants to fund with its $3 billion research budget. Their plans indicate that they expect unmanned aerial vehicles to play a strong role in future military operations.

For example, a soon-to-be-released DARPA solicitation will call for an integrator to broker the development of a new operating system, called the Common Operating System, to be used by UAVs being developed by the Boeing Co. of Chicago and Northrop Grumman Corp. of Los Angeles.

"The key to the successful development of the Common Operating System is collaboration between the two prime contractors and the technology contributors in this consortium," said DARPA Program Manager Marc Pitarys. "The role of the integrator-broker is to be proactive in the integration process, mitigating the effects of the competitive forces between the two primes."

DARPA plans to award a contract for the integration project early this summer, Pitarys said.

Program managers also said the agency will build on successes, such as the reconnaissance support provided by UAVs in Iraq. Global Hawk and Predator UAVs, developed in part by DARPA, surveyed battle areas and sent back intelligence data. Human operators remotely control both.

DARPA wants to take the next step in what it sees as UAV evolution: unified, networked teams of aircraft systems. In October 2003, DARPA, the Air Force and the Navy set up the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program with a four-year, $5 billion budget.

J-UCAS will oversee development of "a collection of unmanned, weaponized, high-performance aircraft operating together in dangerous, hostile airspace and fed by information from a variety of other battlefield sources," said Mike Francis, J-UCAS program officer.

The operating system will provide a crucial element for these vehicles, Pitarys said. Rather than use an existing operating system, DARPA will fund development of one for networked UAVs. The Common Operating System will handle command, control, communications, weapons management and mission planning.

The Common Operating System will not be like other operating systems on the market, such as Unix or Linux, Pitarys said. Instead of controlling servers and desktop operating systems, this operating system will control all the parts of the aircraft, such as weapons, sensors, autonomic control and communications links.

It also will provide technical interfaces to command and control systems and other unmanned vehicles through networks such as the Global Information Grid and the ultra-high-frequency Link-16 of the Global Command and Control System.

"The system has to be interoperable [with other Defense Department elements] as well as interoperable with outside elements," Pitarys said.

The operating system will control the unmanned combat air vehicles known as X-45 that Boeing is developing, and the larger X-47 that Northrop Grumman is developing. Last October, the development programs for both crafts were folded into the J-UCAS office.

The operating system developers, he said, will work in a consortiumlike environment. The "integrator-broker" will coordinate input from Boeing, Northrop Grumman and other technical contributors.

"The J-UCAS enterprise requires a level of integration far exceeding what would be needed for individual platforms," Pitarys said.



Aircraft are not the only vehicles that the Defense Department wants to put on automatic pilot. The Defense Department has stringent, if long-range, orders from Congress to run a third of all ground combat vehicles, such as supply trucks, unmanned by 2015.

Ground vehicles that defense teams can drive remotely or that are self-directed would take on many of a soldier's dangerous, dirty or dull tasks. Small sensor-heavy craft, able to stay alert far longer than human spies, also would conduct reconnaissance missions.

And in keeping with its goal of network-centric warfare, the Defense Department wants to network all these new ground and air vehicles so information they collect can be shared across units with greater reliability than via today's networks.

"As platforms enter a battle zone, the network must create itself, adjust and adapt to conditions as they occur, all without human interaction," said DARPA Director Anthony Tether. Combat networks "must bring new platforms into the network as they arrive and automatically drop departing platforms." *

Joab Jackson is an associate editor at Government Computer News. He can be reached at
Like any technology convention, this year's DARPATech, the annual gathering of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency offices, had a plethora of new gadgets, demonstrations and technologies.

DARPA-funded iRobot Corp. of Burlington, Mass., set up a paddock filled with 30 tissue-box-sized robotic vehicles. These vehicles were unusual in that they exhibited how networked vehicles can operate in loosely coordinated groups.

Each SwarmBot was programmed to seek out and trade information with other vehicles and to find a blue metal beacon placed on one side of the paddock. The vehicles wandered about the paddock randomly.

When one found the beacon, it signaled to the nearest neighboring vehicles, which in turn signaled to their neighbors. Within a few minutes, all the robots closely surrounded the beacon. The algorithms used in these tiny bots could be the basis for coordinating more complex systems.

DARPA's Microsystems Technology Office demonstrated a fuel cell only slightly larger than a Ritz cracker. A few milliliters of hydraulic acid provided enough energy for the unit to power both a personal digital assistant and a small fan for almost seven hours.

A handheld device, demonstrated by VoxTec, a division of Marine Acoustics Inc. of Middletown, R.I., can take a sentence uttered in one language and convert it into another via voice synthesis technology.

The device, called the Phraselator, comes with a list of hundreds of frequently used phrases, such as "Did you see what happened?" in English and another language, such as Russian, Croatian or Arabic, depending on which modules the user loads into the device.

The user trains the device to learn his or her voice, so when something is said into the device, it finds the phrase, then repeats it in the language of choice. Each device holds thousands of small MP3 files of translated words that it stitches into sentences.

The Phraselator, which was funded in part by DARPA, was tested by field workers and soldiers in Afghanistan and was used during the conflict in Iraq, said Ace Sarich, president of VoxTec.

DARPA's Information Exploitation Office demonstrated a working prototype of a networked soldier's helmet. The helmet, called the Multispectral Adaptive Networked Tactical Imaging System, featured screens that covered the soldier's eyes. The screens showed not only what was in front of the soldier, through a camera affixed to the top of the helmet, but also showed other screens of information that may be needed in combat.

Using a helmet like this, soldiers may be able to trade information wirelessly, as well as draw more situational data from a command and control center, said DARPA Program Manager Jeff Paul, who was demonstrating the device.

Using the helmet, the "warfighter will not only receive sensor information, but also become a sensor in the network by contributing data and imagery," Paul said. The office is seeking parties that will further develop the technologies needed for such a helmet, he said.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.

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