DARPA aims for a breakthrough in field communications

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has awarded a contract to Rockwell Collins to develop a first-of-its-kind radio based on photonics technology that could improve battlefield communications while reducing the equipment required in the field.

The contract: The cost-plus-fixed-fee contract, worth up to $8.5 million, under DARPA’s DISARMER project calls for building direct conversion receiver based on a photonics-enabled, analog-to-digital converter (ADC). The project is expected to be completed by September 2016.

The technology: DARPA says its photonics projects aim to take advantage of “the high sensitivity and large bandwidth of photonic components, as well as the ease of transmission of optical signals, to enhance sensing and communications.” Photonics, which in general covers all aspects of sensing and transmitting light, is employed in telecommunications (such as fiber optics) and information processing, among many other uses, and can also be used in processing quantum information. DARPA said its goals include developing increasingly complex circuits while reducing the physical footprint of the devices it uses.

The projectRockwell Collins said it plans to apply the photonic ADC technology developed in DARPA’s RADER (Remote Analog-To-Digital Converter with De-Serialization and Reconstruction) program to build a digital receiver that can accommodate frequencies in the X-band, a microwave segment of the spectrum. The ability to transmit at higher frequencies and greater resolution could allow faster processing of information. It could also eventually lead to smaller, lighter, more power efficient and less expensive radios, the company said.

DARPA has cited the need for analog-to-digital conversion of signals in the field, where the number and variety of radio-frequency devices has grown. To date, however, high-speed, high-resolution ADC systems have been lacking, which is why the agency launched the RADER program. With the technology developed in that program, the agency is now looking to take the next step.

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