The convergence of advanced military technologies with public-safety needs is nowhere more evident than in the field of interoperable communications. The events of the last decade underscore and highlight the need for unified responses to complex and sometimes unforeseen circumstances. The ability to identify and rapidly deploy technological solutions in adverse conditions has defined some of the most novel and sophisticated battlefield communications applications of the 21st century.
Since the dawn of the millennium, the new reality is that the term “battlefield” no longer can be applied to remote locations, or used to define traditional military endeavors. Rather, it now encompasses a more holistic view of threats and threat responses, in which the primacy of secure and trusted communications plays an integral part.
Similarly, the term “communications” underwent a transformation. The traditional notion of simple point-to-point communication between two parties has given way to a broader notion of integrated communications encompassing traditionally — as well as situationally — defined groups. In other words, the complexity of a situation requires a flexible and extensible architecture that enables rapid and secure communications in dynamic environments.
Military communications are driven by many different — and, at times, seemingly contradictory — protocols. To the casual observer, military communications are a highly structured, top-to-bottom type architecture. The reality is a bit more complicated. Although the necessity for maintaining a chain-of-command-style system is of paramount importance, the reality is that the military has come to understand the need for a type of blended informational structure. In other words, data acquisition and transmission play a crucial role in the decision-making process. Particularly from the data acquisition viewpoint, this means that both the troops in the field and supporting operational platforms play a significant role in the decision-making process.
This type of information-driven process can involve anything from networked handheld radios to video and data networks to complex satellite communications systems. The goal of integrated network solutions that enable information sharing, situational awareness and knowledge dominance in any environment is the driver of successful military operations.
Conversely, the first responder and public-safety sector has very similar needs but fewer resources upon which to draw. Many of the military’s concerns of the last two decades are shared by public-safety officials. Unlike the military, however, the public sector at the state and local levels simply do not have the budgetary wherewithal to develop their own systems. Furthermore, the perception exists that — due to these fiscal constraints and significant past investments in hardware, training and communications network infrastructure — the ability to upgrade to flexible, extensible and open systems is beyond reach.
Also, like their military counterparts, first responders and public-safety officials see their operational environment as subject to extreme change at a moment’s notice. While perhaps not as extreme as a battlefield in Iraq, everything from natural disasters to manmade events at a local level have instilled in public-safety officials a growing awareness that reliance upon proprietary systems for communications carries the hazard of being unusable when needed most.
Furthermore, there is a growing awareness that sole reliance upon infrastructure such as towers potentially also can limit communications in times of crisis. The understanding that infrastructure can fail during a crisis leads public-safety officials to develop what-if scenarios. At the state and local level, there is a growing trend toward evaluating the full spectrum of interoperable communications’ weak points, as well as already-existing technological solutions.
At a very fundamental level, the financial commitment required to upgrade infrastructure necessitates the need to leverage existing legacy hardware with open-standards-based solutions. Systems administrators are looking for solutions that incorporate existing hardware and are highly adaptable when it comes to future, undefined hardware. There is a growing realization that open standards must remain open, so that they do not become an excuse for a vendor-driven agenda in which an open standard is co-opted by proprietary components that limits a department’s future technology choices.
There are a vast number of solutions in use on the battlefield today that are ready for adoption in the public-safety sector. Many of these technologies have benefitted from extensive research and development, as well as testing that only a battlefield environment can provide.
One such solution is the Mobile Ad-Hoc Network, or MANET. Essentially, this technology leverages pre-GPS legacy radios that were designed to track troop positions and supplements that capability with IP functionality, so that data communications could be added to the voice functionality. In another scenario, the Enhanced Position Location Reporting System (EPLRS) radio was used to create a series of multiple tactical nodes communicating over IP that became the first successful ad-hoc network.
An additional technology that makes use of non-infrastructure-based communications is the High Capacity-Beyond Line of Sight (HC-BLOS) system that delivers voice, video and data via troposcatter, which transmits radio waves over the curvature of the Earth without using satellites. It can establish a high-capacity data link — as much as 40 Mbps at an initial maximum range of 120 miles — that can be supplemented through the addition of other complementary components.
Also, work began last year on the Network Centric Radio Systems for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Known as MAINGATE (Mobile Ad-Hoc Interoperability Gateway), the project is a close relative of MANET and allows for network integration and data sharing across the battlefield. The network supports multiple full-motion video feeds, robust and detailed situational awareness, command and control, chat, voice nets and call groups, and on-the-move access to Web 2.0 applications.
Finally, the One Force Tracker iPhone application was unveiled late in 2009. It tracks friends and foes, displaying their positions on real-time maps, and provides secure communications. This type of application offers both critical and immediate capabilities for use in the public-safety sector. From passive-surveillance to situational-awareness during an incident, the One Force Tracker’s ability to support SWAT team actions, drug-interdiction efforts and coordinated responses to mass-casualty incidents is unprecedented.
The adaptability offered by these systems should be readily apparent in extremely challenging and fluid environments. The ability to create networks that operate independent of fixed infrastructure creates a huge margin of safety when it is needed most, particularly because fixed infrastructure no longer is an integral element for high-capacity data links. The concept of ad-hoc mobile networks and self-healing networks has garnered significant attention from the public-safety sector. These technologies represent a significant departure from the traditional concepts of interoperable networks.
Although some of these technologies are driven by the realities faced by our troops in the field, it does not take much imagination to envision how they might be used in the public-safety sector. The ability to offer seamless, on-the-fly networking and data transfer rates that can accommodate voice, data and video across multiple analog and digital systems is of huge benefit to the police, emergency medical and fire sectors. The good news is that integrated military communications technologies such as those described in this article are being offered to the public-safety sector today.
Bill Iannacci is Raytheon‘s director of civil communications solutions.