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Soldiers in a field using communication tools

DARPA looks way outside the box for mobile on-the-fly networks

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is known for its novel approaches to how computers can be used to serve the military. And it has been doing just that for the last 55 years.

The agency’s latest idea is a doozy, even by DARPA standards: A large scale mobile network for the field “unencumbered by Internet Protocols.”

DARPA this week issued a call for ideas for creating a mobile ad-hoc network (MANET) that would, by a wide margin, surpass anything yet achieved. MANET devices configure their interconnectivity on their own, without the oversight of some sort of server-based controller. They would have to be able to switch nodes the fly as their locations change, so each must effectively be its own router.

To say this would be tricky to put into practice on a large scale would be an incredible understatement. But this is what DARPA is looking for and it could totally change how the military communicates in the field.

The agency is asking for ideas that come from a completely clean slate, unhampered by the baggage that comes with current Internet Protocols. Current practical applications of MANETs have broken down after scaling to only 50 nodes or so and the Internet’s incremental improvements haven’t increased that number significantly. DARPA envisions needing a lot more nodes than that to be effective and is looking for “truly revolutionary ideas,” according to the announcement.

“A MANET of a thousand nodes could support an entire battalion without the need for manual network setup, management and maintenance that comes from ‘switchboard’-era communications,” said Mark Rich, DARPA program manager said in the announcement. “This could provide more troops with robust services such as real-time video imagery, enhanced situational awareness and other services that we have not yet imagined.”

DARPA will hold a symposium Aug. 7-8 in Arlington, Va., to hear presentations on the subject. Attendees will watch the presentations and then break into working groups to discuss the ideas.

The agency is working on battlefield innovations on other fronts as well. In 2012, it announced a plan for a different wireless initiative, the Fixed Wireless at a Distance program to develop cell tower-class performance without the fixed infrastructure. DARPA also recently developed a tiny chip, called a timing and inertial measurement unit that can provide precise location and navigation information when GPS signals are unavailable.

Posted by Greg Crowe on May 02, 2013 at 11:21 AM


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