Today’s warriors grew up in an era of smartphones, so it makes sense that they expect to go into battle with intuitive and reliable communications systems. It isn’t so simple, however, when using high-tech communications in harsh, unfamiliar and hostile areas.
Texas A&M is helping address these challenges by opening an outdoor testing site for U.S. researchers, and by accelerating two particular areas of its own research.
To talk, text and get around, people use cellular towers, fiber-optic lines and a global system of satellites. A slowdown or interruption is an annoying inconvenience.
On the battlefield, the military has to bring its own system. It has to be something as fast as and reliable as the enemy’s system, something able to withstand hacking and spoofing, and something able to adapt instantly to changing conditions.
A slowdown or interruption can be the difference between victory and defeat.
The Army continually studies how to stay ahead of adversaries by refining today’s technology while also pursuing next-generation systems that are lighter, faster, smarter and nimbler.
That dual challenge will be a focus of the Bush Combat Development Complex, where researchers can experiment in a simulated battlefield setting with instruments that collect and analyze a wide range of precisely calibrated data.
Two teams of Texas A&M researchers will be among those testing communication systems, taking advantage of the agile experimenting process and the university’s expertise in technology for autonomous vehicles.
The teams involve multiple academic disciplines, including mechanical, electrical, aerospace and computer engineering; computational mechanics; computer science; robotics; and human-machine interaction.
One team is working to design, develop and test the technical architecture for a portable wireless network, something that can be brought to the battle and move information reliably back and forth among a platoon of air and ground vehicles.
The other is attempting to create an intelligent, intuitive software system that can direct vehicle movement automatically. The system will direct actions by interpreting situational awareness data that air and ground vehicles themselves collect and share. The data is derived from the vehicles’ own surveillance of their surroundings.
Both research teams will place a premium on transferring information securely, reliably and quickly. The information will be freshened at guaranteed frequencies and guaranteed speeds, measured in milliseconds. The information will move especially fast for use solely by autonomous vehicles and slightly slower when soldiers are involved too, as humans need more time to react than machines.
The teams will use the airborne perspective of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to help guide ground vehicles and vice versa, so that every vehicle is aware of the unfolding situation beyond its own line of sight.
They also will place a premium on redundancy, adaptability and resilience so that their technology can thwart outside cyberthreats and reconfigure to keep working even if battlefield conditions deteriorate.
The envisioned portable wireless network is known as the Universal Information-Centric Self-Organizing Resilient Network, or UNICORN.
UNICORN will have nodes that look like a small box of antennas, weighing 10 pounds or less. Each will contain a battery, a computer and a radio unit. Each node will be small enough to strap on to a UAV or place inside a ground vehicle.
An information-centric network is a more efficient way to deliver similar information quickly and repeatedly to nearby locations or military formations — such as an advancing platoon of vehicles.
The intelligent software system will take the information being shared across the platoon and add a level of automated decision-making for a smaller group of air and ground vehicles.
Within a year, the goal is to have one aerial vehicle and one ground vehicle directing their own actions; within five years, the hope is for three or four ground vehicles working in concert autonomously with four or five UAVs.