DARPA enters uncharted network territory

'As platforms enter a battle zone, the network must create itself, adjust and adapt to conditions as they occur'all without human interaction,' DARPA director Anthony J. Tether says.

Courtesy DARPA and the Army

Agency asks for help with new battlefield protocol, OS

ANAHEIM, Calif.'If pilot efforts at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency pan out, the battlefields of tomorrow will swarm with self-propelled attack vehicles reliant on advanced software and networking gear.

The agency this month'at the DARPA-Tech 2004 conference'cast a keen eye on IT concepts to boost performance of both humans and machines.

The Defense Department has stringent, if long-range, orders from Congress to automate its war machinery. By 2015, a third of all ground combat vehicles must be unmanned. Lawmakers also have demanded DOD expand use of robotic aircraft.

Ground vehicles or aircraft that Defense teams can drive remotely or are self-directed would take on many of a soldier's dangerous, dirty or dull tasks. Small sensor-heavy craft, able to stay alert far longer than human spies, would also conduct reconnaissance missions.

In keeping with its goal of network-centric warfare, DOD wants to network all these new vehicles so information they collect can be shared across units with greater reliability than via today's networks.

Left on their own

'As platforms enter a battle zone, the network must create itself, adjust and adapt to conditions as they occur'all without human interaction,' DARPA director Anthony J. Tether said. Combat networks 'must bring new platforms into the network as they arrive and automatically drop departing platforms.'

To enable this sort of network-driven warfare, DARPA is taking a hard look at radically improving, or discarding altogether, some long-held network fundamentals.

'The packet network paradigm probably needs to change,' said Col. Tim Gibson, program manager for DARPA's Advanced Technology Office. 'I'm not advocating throwing out the Internet Protocol completely, but we absolutely must have some mechanism for assigning network capabilities to different users, and that capability has to scale to large numbers of devices automatically.

'Static networks are no good for tomorrow's battlefield because everything will move around all the time. What we need is dynamic scalability.'

DARPA wants to fund development of new protocols or enhancements to IP that will let nodes, such as computers, automatically sign on to networks in their vicinity.

Another aspect that hampers network flexibility is the seven-layer Open Systems Interconnection stack, long the foundation for building network protocols.

The OSI model was not designed for wireless devices, said Reggie Brothers, a DARPA program manager.

'The model served us pretty well for the stable, predictable world of wireline communications,' Brothers said. 'Mobile networks are nothing like that. They are unpredictable and highly variable. We need to think of different layers of the stack relating to one another directly, like a mesh, instead of one level up to the next.'

That flexibility should be a characteristic not only of platforms leaving or entering a network, but also of the network elements themselves. DARPA is looking for technologies that will 'relay nodes that autonomously reposition themselves in the battlespace according to the state of the network, the mission requirements and the communications priorities,' Gibson said.

Defense's R&D arm must spur the development of technologies to underpin these visions. For this year, DARPA received about $3 billion to devote to long-term investment. The agency funds ideas too experimental to interest companies looking for a likely return on investment.

Some of these funds will build on technology successes from recent deployments. One such success of the past year's conflict in Iraq is the reconnaissance support provided by unmanned aerial vehicles.

Remotely controlled by human operators, Global Hawk and Predator UAVs, both developed in part by DARPA, surveyed battle areas and reported back intelligence data.

As a follow-on, DARPA wants to take the next step in what it sees as UAV evolution: unified, networked teams of aircraft and ground systems. In October, DARPA along with the Air Force and the Navy set up the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems program with a four-year, $5 billion budget.

Must-have item

J-UCAS will oversee development of 'a collection of unmanned, weaponized, high-performance aircraft operating together in dangerous hostile airspace and fed by information from a variety of other battlefield sources,' said Mike Francis, J-UCAS program officer.

A crucial element will be the operating system, J-UCAS program manager Marc Pitarys said. Rather than use an existing OS, DARPA will fund the development of a unique OS for networked UAVs. The Common Operating System will handle command, control, communications, weapons management and mission planning.

The OS will not be 'single, monolithic software hosted on a central processing element,' Pitarys said. 'It is not like Unix, Linux or any of the available operating systems.'

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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