Igal Sharret

COMMENTARY

A holistic approach to tactical comms

I vividly recall earlier days when I was a young development engineer designing military communications systems that were outpacing their commercial counter parts in technology and capabilities. For example, the Tri-Service Tactical Communications (TRI-TAC) program, the first all digital network for the tactical soldier, was being developed and fielded while the commercial world was still all analog.

The world has since changed. Instead of military-centered technologies leading the way, it is now the military systems developers that are busy trying to adapt commercial technologies and systems to the military environment. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the area of smart phones. These commercial devices possess tremendous capabilities. They serve not only as voice and data end-instruments, but also as platforms for sophisticated applications and have become ubiquitous in the general population. Military systems developers have recognized early on the power and potential of these devices and how they could provide significant capabilities to warfighters in the battle space of the future. They could, for example, support Blue Force Tracking, chemical sensors and biometric data collectors that would provide warfighters and commanders with situational awareness and visibility into warfighters and environmental conditions. As a result, planners’ goals have now become making smart phones just as ubiquitous in the military space.


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Advanced as these devices are, their deployment on the battlefield presents serious problems. For one thing, they are not sufficiently rugged and may not survive the harsh environment. This problem has been studied by manufacturers and service providers that now offer some solutions to reduce the surroundings’ impact. Another serious problem is the lack of military-level security in these commercial devices. This problem has also been addressed and analyzed by many organizations, and solutions to it already exist, such as President Obama’s Blackberry.

However, the real problem is that smart phones are essentially useless without a cellular network. Without an infrastructure, no two phones can communicate regardless of how physically close they are to one another. This is a serious problem especially in the austere environment of the battle space like in Iraq and Afghanistan today. The military, having recognized the problem, has undertaken several efforts to ruggedize and mobilize cell towers, including building drone-mounted towers. However, these systems are costly and present the usual logistical problems of having enough of the right equipment in the right place at the right time.

Also, a corollary to the lack of infrastructure is the lack of reliable sources of electrical power which the power-hungry smart phones must have. How do warfighters charge their batteries, and how often do they do it, when electricity itself is at a premium?

Apparently what has been missing from this development and adaptation process is a holistic approach to solving the tactical communications problem. The approach from the start should have addressed both smart-phone functionality and advanced network technologies together, not separately. This is what Telegrid has done in the development of the WZRDnet low-power wireless ad-hoc mesh network.

The network was developed specifically for austere environments where infrastructure may not exist and electrical power is scarce. Telegrid’s approach addresses both the handheld device and the network as a unified entity with a goal of providing optimum device performance and advanced network architecture. WZRDnet’s fully packetized mesh architecture provides secure voice and data communications over a large area without the need for any infrastructure. If a wide-area network is accessible, the WZRDnet Gateway can provide seamless connectivity to all users. WZRDnet handsets, which operate for 38 hours between recharges, are ideal platforms for smart applications such as Blue Force Tracking.

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