Initial testing of a radio design that is expected to result in affordable cognitive handsets will begin later this year, with a version of the design costing less than $500 to manufacture expected in 2010, according to an official with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

“We’re hitting lots of bumps and a lot of problems that we didn’t expect, but we aren’t seeing any obstacles,” Preston Marshall, program manager for DARPA’s strategic technology office, said during an interview with Urgent Communications. “There’s no reason to think we aren’t going to get there.”

Creating a design to enable an affordable cognitive radio is part of DARPA’s Wireless Network After Next (WNAN) project. WNAN will leverage the success of the agency’s XG program, which established the viability of dynamic spectrum access technology developed by Shared Spectrum, Marshall said. During an XG demonstration in Yuma, Ariz., earlier this year, the technology successfully passed tests in “the most stressing, possible military environment,” he said.

“Not only did we show that we could do dynamic spectrum access … we also laid the groundwork for an equally powerful exploitation of the technology in showing that dynamic spectrum access actually can increase reliability by its ability to avoid interference,” Marshall said.

In an effort to decrease the cost of the solution, DARPA has contracted with Tyco Electronics M/A-COM to design cognitive radios that are more affordable. Testing of the first design will begin by the end of the year, with plans calling for two subsequent designs and associated testing—called “spirals,” one of which will involve a significant number of radios next year—during the next two years, Marshall said.

“We are at the performance of the $500 radio, but we have a few more parts than we want to have eventually,” he said. “After we have more confidence in that and learn what we need and don’t need, we’ll go through two more spirals, resulting in a design that can be manufactured for $500. We’ll be at that design in approximately 24 months.”

DARPA is working toward a design that would allow a cognitive radio to be built for $500 at a volume of 100,000—a “plausible” number of radios that the military could purchase by itself, although no commitments have been made, Marshall said. While WNAN is a military project, designing a radio that also meets the needs of the domestic first-response community is important to lowering its cost, he said.

“It’s very much a function of volume more than parts,” Marshall said. “It’s advantageous for the Department of Defense if public safety buys in, because volume creates economy.”

When combined with the inherent flexibility of cognitive radio, the economies eventually could be great enough to alter the mindset that both the military and public safety use when contemplating communications purchases, Marshall said.

“The idea is to get sufficient volume to shift from a long-term investment in radios to treating them more like we individually treat cell phones—you buy one, you use it for a couple of years, and you throw it away. It creates a lot of volume and makes you more inclined to buy the new one,” he said.