Mission 1: Practicality
Technology companies should match solutions with battlefield conditions
- By Doug Beizer
- Apr 03, 2008
Today's warfighters depend on computer networks
for planning and fighting battles.
However, access to a network is not easy ? or
cheap ? in the middle of a desert.
A portable satellite link is one solution, but
the technology is expensive, and bandwidth
can be limited.
The Marine Corps chose a different method
to provide a data link to some of its outlying
bases in Iraq.
With a wireless point-to-point link from
TeleCommunications Systems Inc., the
Marine Corps uses radio frequency to deliver
an approximately 80M link as far as the
20 miles that can separate wired bases from
smaller outlying ones.
The system's ease of use and lower cost are
keys to the program, said Jesse Ivens, TCS'
project engineer for the program.
"There is cost for the equipment, but there's
no real cost for additional satellite bandwidth
because this is line of sight," Ivens said. "So
there's a huge saving for the government in
using this technology."
The project is a good example of the contracts
coming from the Defense Department
in recent months.
It focuses on technology warfighters can
use under the conditions they face in Iraq,
Afghanistan and other locations. Information
technology companies must think about projects
and innovations in those terms, industry
sources say.POCKETFUL OF NETWORKS
Lockheed Martin Corp., iRobot Corp.
and other companies are working on an
urban communications project for the
Defense Advanced Research Projects
Agency. It focuses on small robots called
Small enough to fit in a cargo pocket on a
soldier's pants, the robots are designed to
help maintain communications in urban
areas, where barriers such as buildings and
walls can weaken or break communications
To avoid those problems, LANdroids
will sense the strength and pattern of radio
signals and automatically position themselves
to fortify signal weaknesses or bridge
DOD officials imagine foot soldiers using
the technology to maintain uninterrupted
"When you get into complex urban environments,
the obstacles in the way, the interference
in the radio frequency space can
make communications tenuous," said Chris
Jones, research program manager at iRobot.
The LANdroids will act as mobile communications
relay nodes that can create an ad
hoc or multihop network. A warfighter can
connect to the closest LANdroid, and the
signal will bounce to other LANdroids until
it can connect to other warfighters or a home
"Each one of these nodes is mobile, so it
can be dynamically moving and adjusting its
position in order to maximize the coverage of the network or minimize the latency," Jones
The urban work required in Iraq necessitates
the technology. Communication relays
mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles work
fine in an open field but
are ineffectual when
troops are indoors
iRobot's role in the
project is to build the
robots. Each is intended
to be small, with a volume of about a
liter, so warfighters could carry many of the
robots and distribute them as they move
The robots are also designed to be inexpensive.
DARPA set a goal of less than $100
apiece. That means in certain situations the
robots could be treated as disposable and left
Even though they will be inexpensive, the
robots still must be smart. They must know
how to navigate through a building, get
around walls and avoid falling down stairs.
Finally, they need to be rugged.
Researchers envision soldiers tossing the
robots where they need to be rather than gently
placing them on the ground.
Jones said incorporating all those requirements
is a challenge.
"You have to be concerned about the level
of integration required," he said. "This is a
small robot where you
have mechanical components,
components and sensors.
All of these things
have to be tightly integrated
in such a small package, and you also
have to think about cost."
iRobot's years of experience building other
robots will be integral in designing this new
one. The Burlington, Mass., company also
brought consumers the Roomba vacuum
cleaner robot.BANDWIDTH GALORE
For the Marine Corps' wireless point-to-point
link project, experience with previous generations
of the technology led to a desire for this
It uses two frequency ranges, which
increases the amount of bandwidth possible
with the technology, among other things.
The technology is designed to extend to
additional users from an established satellite
"In Iraq right now, there are bases strung
all over the country," Ivens said. "They have a
large satellite network already there, but the
satellite bandwidth and the equipment is very
expensive. So instead of putting a satellite
dish in every place that needs communications,
they're taking the [wireless point-topoint
link] and extending to other locations."
The system includes a mast to hold the
antennas and radios. Cabling comes down from
the mast and connects to networking gear,
which includes routers, switches and more
devices . Laptop PCs, IP phones and other
equipment can then be plugged into the system.
The Marine Corps is interested in the extra
bandwidth that the two radio frequencies can
"Both radios go up to about 80M of
throughput, where on a typical satellite link
you're only going to get 3 to 8M," Ivens said.
"To get that much bandwidth over satellite
would be astronomically expensive."Doug Beizer (email@example.com) is a
reporter at Washington Technology.
Doug Beizer is a staff writer for Washington Technology.