Wireless technologies must meet the unique and often tough requirements of military customers, whether they are running operations abroad or on U.S. soil. So said Col. Debra Rose, who oversees the South Carolina National Guard’s domestic-operations communications. Specifically, Rose coordinates military communications for the state’s guard during disasters.
Hurricanes are the National Guard’s most common disasters, she said. The storms hit coastal populations with a fury. To prepare for them, the state’s guard stages public-utility and public-safety agencies’ equipment and personnel resources at its armories. Often, such areas are located about 40 miles from the coast.
Being prepositioned lets agencies quickly repair infrastructure and respond to emergencies inside the disaster zone once the hurricane has passed, Rose said. Among the gear is wireless communications equipment that must be available for a coordinated response. Separate agencies within each staging area must report back to headquarters to coordinate recovery actions.
“During emergency situations, we need to make sure multiple agencies — and by that, I mean electric, gas, police, the Red Cross, all those agencies — can talk to each other,” she said.
Rose said the military and guard also manage communications systems of their own, from handheld radios to satellite backhaul. As a result, they need a robust network. Once established, the network’s capacity is tested with cooperating agencies, “which improves emergency response tremendously,” she said.
“The whole thing is for the police to be able to talk to the National Guard, to the hospitals and all of those different agencies,” Rose said. “That will always be difficult but we are getting a lot better at it.”
Ruggedness is another crucial element for military technologies, because troops and equipment often are sent to inhospitable environments.
“It’s bad conditions after a hurricane … so the equipment has to stand up,” she said.
To support its wireless communications, the National Guard purchased technology from private industry, including Fortress Technologies. The company offers mesh-network technologies that lets each soldier or military vehicle become a node in a wireless network.
Fortress’ president Janet Kumpu said the company serves mostly Department of Defense personnel, including the U.S. Army, Marines and National Guard. She added that military officials want net-centric communications technologies that extend the reach of the network and provide access to data, video or voice in real-time to the soldier.
For example the South Carolina National Guard uses Fortress’ ES520, an 802.11 a/b/g radio with other integrated communications in a ruggedized military case. Kumpu said the company just added the ES210, which worn in a military vest and connects to other nodes for a secure wireless connection to infrastructure. For example, the man-worn device connects soldiers’ helmet-mounted cameras to a vehicle-mounted node, which in turn can transmit data to a command and control center, she said. The wearable device also has integrated GPS that lets users view the active elements of the network.
“The man-wearable device could be worn by a National Guard individual who goes to a remote location and becomes a tethered node on the network with a streaming video camera connected to that device and shooting that video back to a tactical operations center,” Kumpu said.
She also noted that the device can be integrated in a vehicle or unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, to create a mesh point, allowing tanks, strikers and Humvees to be used to extend the range of wireless communications.
“Vehicles can communicate across the convoy,” she said.
Fortress radios are just one piece of another military-centric solution offered by Telos, said Winston Payne, a company product manager. Payne said when deploying a remote network for military clients, the focus needs to be not only on the specific mission that the particular military customer is trying to accomplish, but also on the various terrains used for its operations.
For military applications, Telos developed a Combat Service Support Automated Information System Interface (CAISI), an 802.11-based, long-range, point-to-point mesh communications device in transportable cases. It uses Fortress’ radio and a combination of antenna configurations, depending on whether it’s in a mesh or point-to-point environment.
The radio, a Fortress ES520 wireless bridge, works as a bridging radio and a local area network radio. Both are capable of operating in the 802.11 a/b/g frequencies. Antennas include long- and short-range, directional, and omnidirectional options, Payne said. The suitcase also includes cables to connect to a router, switch or a computer network.
CAISI can route data and voice between nodes, operating on generators for continuous connectivity. This is important in times of emergencies, when other forms of power are down and when conventional disaster communications systems are not operational, Payne said.
Wireless technologies are also used at Fort Irwin, Calif., located in the High Mojave Desert midway between Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Because of its remote location, the fort is not always conducive to wired computer communications, Payne said. Specifically, wireless infrastructure was needed for the National Training Center (NTC), where Army units conduct remote force-on-force and live-fire joint training for ground and aviation brigades. With such technologies, the range from the access points in Fort Irwin was extended by using them in a mesh configuration, Payne said. Doing so enabled users to move from node to node without a loss of connectivity. In addition, mast-mounted omnidirectional antennas extended the wireless LAN range to 4 miles.
Payne said that despite the rugged environment, the only implementation issue he encountered was establishing connectivity with the network backbone.
“Some of the sites were remote. We had to deploy a mesh network configuration to make sure that all those sites had direct connectivity back to the network,” he said. “There were network security challenges, [but they] are inherent to all networks — not just specific to the Mohave dessert.”