Tech Focus

Blue Force gets capacity boost

New ground station technology improves satellite throughput for situational awareness

As the Army’s Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below (FBCB2) program office works with suppliers to create the next generation of the Blue Force Tracking (BFT) system, the current system is getting a major boost in capability because of upgrades to the back end of its satellite network. The improvements are extending the life of existing BFT systems in the field by significantly increasing the network’s bandwidth, which makes it possible to support more units in the field or increase the timeliness of data used for situational awareness.

Comtech Mobile Datacom, the Army’s prime contractor for BFT satellite communications, has implemented a technology called Adaptive Multiuser Detection (AMD) at the ground stations of its seven commercial satellite communications partners, said Dan Wood, Comtech’s chief executive officer.

“AMD is an improved digital signature processing technique used by the hardware that goes into our earth stations that we have set up all over the world,” Wood said. “We’re now in the process of deploying [a second generation of AMD] that we call Spiral 2. And in doing so, we’re increasing the capacity of the existing satellite channels by 20 times their current capacity.”

The technology is part of what the FBCB2 program office had planned for the next generation of BFT, called BFT2. That system will be part of the Joint Battle Command-Platform (JBC-P), a follow-on program to FBCB2. But Comtech has deployed the technology now as part of its continuing contract for BFT as a technology refresh.

BFT uses a constellation of commercial very-small-aperture terminals to relay position information and other situational awareness data from vehicles and aircraft.  An encrypted VSAT backbone connects the commercial satellite providers, and to be as secure as possible, encrypted virtual private networks transmit data. The capacity of those networks has been limited because of the sheer number of BFT systems in the field that broadcast data via the satellite network.

Wood said the volume of transmitted data can become overwhelming because of the large number of units that operate on any given satellite channel.

AMD uses digital signal processing to sort those signals. The process is accomplished “in near-real time, working itself through 60 millisecond snippets of information at a time,” Wood said.

Many terrestrial radio networks use AMD technology. Its use via VSAT connections means that the current commercial constellation of satellites supporting BFT will be able to easily accommodate additional units and potentially support a much higher rate of updates from the units, thereby giving units on the ground a better picture of where friendly forces are.

“You’re going to see more movement of the vehicles that you want to see,” Wood said.

The JBC-P platform will begin deploying to field units by 2013, FBCB2 program officials said. Northrop Grumman, prime contractor for the user interface and software component of BFT, has already delivered initial prototypes of the software for the next generation BFT system for JBC-P.

ViaSat Inc. received an order from the Army for initial production of the next-generation BFT2 tranceivers for the Force XXI Battle Command Brigade and Below satellite network upgrade in March 2009. The current BFT system is designed to operate at 5.2 kilobits/sec.

The Army also has asked Comtech to provide prototype transceivers as part of a work order under its current contract, which the service extended until December 2013. The Army is hoping to have at least two qualified vendors going into the competition for general production of the systems this summer because of the volume of systems it plans to deploy as part of the next phase of the contract.

“The five-year strategic plan for the FBCB2 program is that they’re looking to field in excess of 150,000 next-generation BFT systems,” Wood said. The current BFT deployment has fielded more than 60,000 transceivers for ground vehicles and aircraft.

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