The source of what’s next
It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. And, on the surface, few sectors have as many common needs as the defense and public-safety communications markets. In both cases, communications must work — even when traditional communications lines are unavailable — or the mission will be jeopardized and lives can be lost.
So it’s not surprising that many technologies built for military purposes have found their way into the public-safety arena and even into consumer markets.
In the consumer scenario, some of the more notable examples include code division multiple access (CDMA), a synchronized frequency-hopping technique invented by actress Hedy Lamarr to help thwart enemy’s efforts during World War II to jam radio signals that controlled torpedoes. Although used sparingly by the military, CDMA was developed fully by Qualcomm and is the foundation of today’s third-generation wireless broadband networks.
Perhaps the best-known example was the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), the first packet-switching network developed in the late 1960s to link the limited number of powerful research computers to each other via routers. This project established the technological basis for what is now known as the Internet.
In the mission-critical arena, the U.S. military has made groundbreaking developments in encryption technologies, mesh networking, software-defined radio (SDR) and is in the early stages of developing cognitive radios, which can sense the spectral environment and utilize even temporarily unused slivers of spectrum as a pathway to transmit messages.
While developing a technology for military use proves the viability of the communications system, transitioning these innovations into domestic use for the first-response and consumer markets can be tricky. Not only are the technical requirements often different, the priorities and motivations for domestic commercial manufacturers typically differ considerably from those supplying the military.
“There is not much similar between early-stage venture investors and defense contractors,” said Jason Rottenberg, managing partner of MILCOM Venture Partners, which specializes in the commercialization of military technologies. “That’s not to disparage one or the other; they’re just very different.”
Military communications: A garden for innovation
For a long time, commercially backed firms like Bell Labs and Bell Northern Research developed cutting-edge communications technologies in an almost pure research environment. While every company still invests in research and development, financial pressures dictate that corporate America typically is willing to fund only research that provides a reasonable chance of success and has a clear path to profitability — a reality that is being exacerbated by the current global economic downturn.
“I’ve talked to several CEOs, and what they say is, ‘Here is my dilemma: I’ve got Wall Street all over me every quarter — profitability, profitability, profitability. If I don’t make a profit, my head’s gone, so I’ve got to cut wherever I can cut,’ and R&D budgets get cut,” mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said. “I’ve jokingly said for years that what we need to do is put Wall Street asleep for a year to get back on track.”
Of course, mission-critical communications traditionally have been a high-margin business for the industry leaders, Motorola and Tyco Electronics Wireless Systems (formerly M/A-COM). But even these companies’ healthy LMR/mission-critical communications businesses — and their ability to make breakthrough innovations — could be threatened by recent events, said John Powell, chairman of the National Public-Safety Telecommunications Council (NPSTC).
“You have to give Motorola credit — they’re a leader in the field, and they’ve historically put a huge amount of money into R&D,” Powell said. “But, if you look at the hits they’ve taken on the cellular side plus the general economy today, they’re not in good shape. For M/A-COM, with what happened in New York [where the company lost a $2 billion contract for a statewide network], their R&D budgets are going to be tapped out for the next few years.”
Even in good economic times, the vast resources available to the military means that DOD spending on research dwarfs spending by commercial companies even during good economic times, Rottenberg said. Even more important is the military’s ability and willingness to fund research based on meeting needs, not profits, he said.
“[Commercial companies’] R&D is focused on particular markets that they think either exist or will exist in the future,” Rottenberg said. “The DOD does research and development on needs that they believe they have today or will have in the future. Those needs are not limited by, ‘It’s got to be a billion-dollar market, or it’s got to serve X number of customers, or it’s got to fit into our sales pipeline,’ which are the things commercial companies think about.
“I think the perspective on what needs to get invested in is different. And the lens that the DOD provides is further out and less concrete. The result is, they’re working on things that no commercial companies would ever work on.”
Academia is another source of pure communications research, but work at universities typically is more difficult to realize in the field, because the priority in that environment is focused on education, not developing products, Rottenberg said.
“The DOD, in my mind, is still the innovator of choice — they think about things in terms of both technological innovation and productization,” Rottenberg said. “That’s different than universities. If you’re working with a professor and he comes up with a breakthrough, he’s not thinking about the end product that much. He’s thinking about, ‘I’ve got to write these papers. I’ve got to do some research. I’ve come up with this innovation.'”
Making the transition
But even developing a product that works in a military environment does not guarantee success in the public-safety and/or commercial sectors. While shifting the technology to the appropriate spectrum bands is relatively easy, other challenges associated with the differences between the markets are not so easy to overcome.
“The first thing we need is about a 99% reduction in cost,” Powell said, noting that the military’s early software-defined radios cost $25,000 or more per unit. “And a lot of these military devices are not made for being carried on the person, or they’re carried by a radio operator who’s separate from the user. Size, weight, battery life and cost are all important issues.”
Certainly these were among the issues that MeshNetworks had to tackle when it created a startup company leveraging ITT technology used for wireless mesh networks for the military, said Peter Stanforth, who served as CTO of the fledgling company. While attracted by the technology’s ability to establish self-forming, self-healing, ad-hoc wireless networks that enabled robust data communications — even a high-speed mobile environment — a lot of work was needed to transform the “brick” into a commercial product, he said.
“It was literally almost the size of a cinder block, and the prototypes were in the order of $30,000 a piece when we first saw them,” Stanforth said. “We had to try to imagine what was in there that was useful to the commercial world and how we could take that and make it viable in the commercial world.”
Among the first decisions the company made was to take out a lot of the heavy military encryption, which limited the ability to export information and created overhead that negatively impacted the network’s efficiency and data throughput, Stanforth said. In addition, MeshNetworks had to adjust power levels and adapt the waveforms to meet FCC emission masks — a common theme when military technology is transitioned to domestic markets.
“The military operates under different rules,” Stanforth said. “When they’re fighting a war, they tend not to worry too much about things like causing interference to commercial people and so on.”
Rottenberg said this process of tailoring a military innovation to meet the needs of a specific market is critical to transforming the technology into a successful commercial product.
“If you’re just focused on, ‘Can I take the technology I have and turn it into XYZ in the commercial market?’ you’ll miss the boat a lot more times than you’ll get on the boat,” he said.
MeshNetworks did not miss the boat, as the company was able to transform the “brick” into a sleek ASIC form factor. The startup quickly became a viable company that Motorola bought in a deal reportedly valued at more than $300 million in 2004.
Prior to the acquisition by Motorola, the MeshNetworks technology also returned to its roots — the military-communications space, Stanforth said.
“A couple of government agencies came back and said, ‘Can we take your ASIC and take it back into the military and modify it, because you’ve now got a basis for a much, much cheaper and smaller form factor?'” he said. “Then, they opened it up and literally put back in all the things we had taken out, but they were starting with something that was very small and inexpensive.
“So it actually went full circle in the case of mesh, and I suspect, in other cases, it’s the same thing.”
Rottenberg said this cycle is typical — the defense sector makes the initial technological development, followed by commercial companies finding a way to leverage it in a less expensive package, which the military then uses to lower its equipment costs. Theoretically, the military could drive this cycle by itself, but Rottenberg said the problem is that the military traditionally has not been willing to compromise on “the specs that they really want,” which typically wrecks the potential economies of scale needed to drive costs downward.
But the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) may be on the verge of changing this trend. Last November, DARPA conducted a successful initial demonstration of a cognitive radio that is being designed to be sold for less than $500, based on a manufacturer being able sell 100,000 units, said project manager Preston Marshall.
Like all DARPA projects, the goal is to develop technology for military use. However, Marshall said DARPA has been talking with public-safety representatives during the development process, because defense officials are hopeful that a cognitive radio that addresses both the military and public-safety markets is more likely to achieve the economies of scale necessary to make the $500 price tag a reality.
“We benefit if there’s a broader market for this equipment,” Marshall said. “Everybody gets the benefit of everyone else’s volume.”
In addition to this cognitive capability, DARPA’s Wireless Network After Next (WNAN) program has incorporated several other technologies, including multiple input/multiple output (MIMO) and disruption-tolerant networking (DTN), which ensures that no packets in a transmission are lost, even if a connection is interrupted for a period of time because a user moved into an area where the radio is outside of the signal range.
Meanwhile, the agency also hopes to add DARPA Interference Multiple Access (DIMA) technology — a set of algorithms that enables greater throughput by allowing multiple users to occupy the same time slot and frequency slot — to the WNAN project, when DIMA is deemed to be mature, said Brian Pierce, DIMA program manager. Results of a DIMA demonstration indicated that the technology would enable data rates that are 3.6 times faster than 802.11g in a fixed environment.
DARPA is developing DIMA to adapt to a mobile environment, with a demonstration of the capability scheduled for February 2010, Pierce said. Marshall said he has “no doubt” that a WNAN technology will be available to the military in 2011. Meanwhile, DARPA plans to have a prototype of the affordable cognitive radio later this year, he said.
Even if the military is able to achieve this timetable, public-safety agencies should not expect these technologies to be available to the first-response community any time soon, Powell said.
“Until the whole cognitive thing is well-proven — probably in the TV white spaces — public safety’s not going to touch it. They may use it for some support stuff, but they’re not going to use it for mission-critical [communications].”
As an example, Powell noted the many years it took for software-defined, multiband radios to reach the public-safety market, but while the multiband solution may not have developed as quickly as the first-response community may have desired, the products from Thales and Harris that are being made commercially available this year appear to be well worth the wait, he said.
“I am really happy with those two SDR-based platforms — the price, performance, weight and battery life are all within [public-safety] specs,” Powell said. “There’s a reason for that. It’s because both of those companies worked extensively through the SDR Forum’s public-safety [special interest group].”
Marshall acknowledged that DARPA’s technology will not reach public safety overnight.
“I think that probably defense proves it first, public safety adopts it, and then [non-governmental organizations] and other applications emerge over time — a trickle-down effect,” Marshall said.