Army to field-test cognitive radios at NIE

The Army is testing a technology that may eliminate the need to manually set frequencies for military operations.

A prototype radio technology might make military bandwidth allocation issues a thing of the past. Known as cognitive radio, it uses a set of algorithms to scan the spectrum for empty spots to transmit into. These smart handsets would allow warfighters to communicate in crowded radio environments without having to manually preset their equipment to specific frequencies.

Developed by xG Technology Inc., the cognitive radio system, known as xMax is undergoing evaluation by the Army during its Network Integration Exercises under way at Fort Bliss, Texas, and nearby White Sands Missile Range, N.M.

The core of the radio is built around spectrum-agnostic dynamic spectrum access, John Coleman, xG’s CEO told Defense Systems. The devices are aware of the surrounding radio environment and access unused slots of spectrum within the range that it is assigned to operate in.

xG radios use six separate algorithms to measure different aspects of the spectrum, cataloging the areas where it can best operate. The radio then transmits data packets into the unused frequency zones between other transmissions.

The company has staff and equipment at Fort Bliss to support the Army during the NIE. Equipment currently consists of software, handheld phones and a commercial base station loaded onto a pickup truck. This includes the software and the cognitive capability transition hardware to form factors such as smart phones and handheld radios.

xG technology has been in development for a decade. Until last year, it was only focused on the civilian market, Coleman said. The company originally planned to build the entire system from the handset up, but it soon plans to shift to providing a software application that can be loaded onto any handheld radio or smart phone.

Although the company name and technology are also similar to a project run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, Coleman said his firm has never shared intellectual data or technical expertise with DARPA. Both the Army and DARPA are keenly interested in cognitive radio and have other continuing research programs to develop the capability, but xG’s technology is more mature and ready for field tests, he said.

For a small firm to build an entire cellular system from handsets to transmission systems up to the Global Information Grid was daunting and a reason for the long development time. “But what was created was an entire holistic system from the handset up, to include management and installation monitoring software. A turnkey system that is cognitive at the handset level. At the edge, the handset is the brains of the system, in its current prototypes and form factors that we’ve fielded here,” he said.

At Fort Bliss, the handsets are assigned the 902 to 928 unlicensed spectrum bands. Once the handset is activated, it automatically monitors those 26 megahertz across 18 channels against six sets of heuristics monitoring the quality of each channel. When the radio transmits, it uses the available channels that meet its requirements.

The company is operating a minimal test network at Fort Bliss consisting of four base stations. If this were expanded to cover the entire facility, soldiers assigned to the base would be able to make all of their administrative, personal or work calls. When a soldier moves to the base’s training area, a press of a button switches the phone to encrypted mode for operational communications. Once out of the field, the wireless device reverts to unclassified transmissions. “We want to offer the military a system — in this case the Army — that operates across the operational continuum from the [continental U.S.] sustaining base to the theater of operation and return,” he said.

As units transition overseas, they will be equipped with an expeditionary set of xMax equipment. The envisioned product of the xMax expeditionary network would be a self-organizing network of micro-sized access points weighing 30 pounds or less with enhanced call capacity, increased throughput and increased capacity for downloads and uploads. “That expeditionary equipment is now completely cognitive in the network,” he said.

Long-term plans for the company call for moving the cognitive technology currently found in the handsets across the entire network. The firm is also moving away from being a handset builder. This complies with the Army’s goal of being able to purchase any handsets and tablet computers off the shelf to meet its needs, Coleman said.

To meet this requirement, the first thing on xG’s development road map is to deliver a MyFi device, a small portable Wi-Fi hot spot ruggedized for military use. The device is not intended as an end state product, but it is a progression towards such a device, Coleman said. Besides delivering the xMod device, the network will be increased beyond voice and text to deliver data. This prototype set of equipment will be fielded in the August-September time frame, he said.

This new equipment will also begin the firm’s transition to a cognitive network instead of just smart handsets. Instead of building handsets, the firm with make an application that can be loaded onto a smart device that will allow the Wi-Fi router in the device to operate on the xMax network.