DARPA plans to bring Wi-Fi to front line troops via re-purposed drones
By Anthony Wood
April 15, 2014
The Defence Advance Research Projects Agency (DARPA) plans to extend connectivity for forward military units with the use of small Wi-Fi-hosting drones. The aim of the Mobile Hotspots project is to provide a reliable, mobile source of bandwidth to all echelons of the military on a scale unthinkable using current methods.
DARPA has recently completed the first of three stages designed to test equipment vital to the success of the program. The first round of testing has yielded successful results for the steerable millimetre-wave antennas, which demonstrated their ability to swiftly acquire and subsequently track their target, thus creating a stable communications link between moving platforms.
“We’re pleased with the technical achievements we’ve seen so far in steerable millimeter-wave antennas and millimeter-wave amplifier technology,” states DARPA program manager Dick Ridgway. “The novel networking approaches needed to maintain these high-capacity links [will be the] key to providing forward deployed units with the same high-capacity connectivity we all enjoy over our 4G cell-phone networks.”
Phase 1 also tested a number of other systems, including the signal and power amplifiers necessary to boost the Wi-Fi signal to the 50 km (32 mile) range required for the project. Systems also displayed 20 percent increased power efficiency, that was achieved in part by utilizing a single gallium nitride chip.
Arguably the most important piece of hardware to have been tested in Phase 1 was the Low-Size Weight and Power (SWAP) pod. All equipment vital to the Mobile Hotspots program will be housed in the wing-mounted pod, to be fitted on RQ-7 Shadow UAVs. In order to be viable for use in the Mobile Hotspots mission, the pod had to weigh less than 20 lb (9 kg) and have a power consumption of under 150 W.
The project bears many similarities to the recent initiative by Facebook and internet.org which, in part, proposes to increase global internet access with the use of its own solar-powered drones.
Phase 2 of testing for the Mobile Hotspots program took place in March, with the goal of further testing Phase 1 assets now integrated into the SWAP pod. The session was planned to conclude with a demonstration of four UAV-compatible SWAP pods, two vehicle-mounted pods, and a single fixed ground node.