Army starts testing smart-city communication tools

The Army Research Laboratory is studying how smart cities’ connected infrastructure could boost military networking capabilities in dense urban environments.

The Army Research Laboratory is studying how smart cities’ connected infrastructure could boost the military’s capabilities in dense urban environments.

ARL researchers were interested in exploring how the emerging internet of battlefield things (IoBT) environment can best use sensors and other equipment, so they tested the capabilities of a commercial networking protocol -- the long-range wide-area network (LoRaWAN). The technology was developed to connect large numbers of internet-of-things devices over long ranges and is often used in smart-city deployments. ARL wanted to see how it would perform in an urban environment, where tall buildings can obstruct transmission.

James Michaelis, an ARL computer scientist, said researchers attached different combinations of connected devices to the roof of a single vehicle and drove it around Montreal. The IoT devices were configured to transmit at three LoRaWAN data transmission rates -- each sending messages of different size -- in the 915 MHz band, which is reserved for North American industrial, scientific and medical use.

The test involved a combination of ARL-developed IoT architecture and commercially available smart-city hardware and software, and it sought to demonstrate whether the integrated system could support situational awareness and command-and-control capabilities in tactical environments.

While traveling through Montreal, the devices transmitted the vehicle's GPS coordinates. That data showed that the maximum transmission distance across the city's central business district was 5 kilometers, or about 3.1 miles, from the receiver.

“In doing this testing, a key objective involved getting as comprehensive coverage as possible, given roadways in and around downtown Montreal,” Michaelis said. “One challenge in doing this was that several roadways were not consistently accessible (due to issues such as road construction). As such, data collection had to be spread out over multiple routes and urban terrains.”

Researchers applied data from the test to two additional areas of research: coverage gap analysis, which assesses conditions where LoRaWAN coverage may be obstructed, and data rate coverage, which assesses the impact of data transmission rates on coverage.

“These both represent ongoing areas of work, involving identification of methods to assess LoRaWAN and the performance of other communication protocols in the presence of varying types of urban infrastructure,” Michaelis said. “A near-term goal will involve work on developing urban terrain profiles, encompassing factors such as buildings, as well as natural terrains, which could be applied to support analysis of network coverage and capability.”

The research has not incorporated 5G or other communications protocols yet.

Michaelis said IoBT aligns with the Army’s modernization priorities, which involve equipping soldiers with the best technology for secure networks and communications.

“IoT infrastructures may be deployed in a variety of settings,” he said. “One is Army installations, which can be viewed as cities in their own right and represent a target for modernization. Such modernizations will likely include smart infrastructure and intelligent systems that operate them.”

The Army’s city-like forward operating bases and tactical operations centers are also likely to incorporate IoBT, he added.

Use cases include perimeter defense where smart technologies can improve environmental monitoring, including identification of and response to potential threats. Another example is humanitarian and disaster relief efforts where situational awareness over the affected areas is required before deploying. To gain those insights, sensors and civilian-owned assets such as traffic cameras can help, Michaelis said.

“Military installations will utilize commercially available technologies in many applications,” he said. “The underlying science of smart device and network technologies is very similar, and our focus is on the related basic research and less on specific locations. Each operating environment is unique, but many of the same technologies may be employed across a variety of settings.”

One challenge is the lack of uniformity in IoT infrastructure due to the number of vendors working with cities to help them collect and analyze data in different ways. Standardization can help, Michaelis said, but that’s no guarantee of system interoperability over the life of an Army installation, for example, because technologies change and improve.

“The problem of transparent interoperability, with and without standards, is a good example of the fundamental scientific challenges involved in integrating IoT infrastructures,” he said.

Michaelis and his team will next expand ARL’s data on LoRaWAN coverage to include other urban areas, add corresponding research on coverage gap analysis and assess ways the Army could use LoRaWAN in smart installations and other communications infrastructures.

“From the perspective of the internet of battlefield things, the notion of a smart city is really just a general way to categorize underlying scientific and engineering challenges that involve smart device/system technologies,” Michaelis said.

This article first appeared on GCN, a partner site with Defense Systems.

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