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DARPA Plans Fast Wireless Links For Remote Soldiers

Agency will spend $11.8 million in first phase of new Mobile Hotspots program, which aims to develop a 4G mobile backhaul network for remote fighters.

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Just last week, the Department of Defense (DOD) said it wanted to provide a better high-speed mobile communications signal in war zones by building fixed-mobility infrastructure in remote areas near forward-operating bases.

But that network won't cover dismounted soldiers who travel out of its range to even more remote areas of the battlefield, which is why the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) also plans to develop a mobile backhaul network equivalent to a commercial 4G network to help them stay connected.

DARPA is ready to award $11.8 million to multiple recipients for phase one of its Mobile Hotspots program, which aims to create a scalable, mobile, millimeter-wave communications backbone to connect warfighters with bases, tactical operations centers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) assets, according to the announcement.

[ DARPA uses technology to improve soldiers' vision. See DARPA Works On Virtual Reality Contact Lenses. ]

The backbone, which carries data and voice communications, also will connect to fixed communications infrastructure like the one being developed in its Fixed Wireless at a Distance program unveiled last week.

The backhaul network should allow for reliable delivery of data among the mobile hotspots, as well as to hotspot users from sources of ISR data--such as vehicle sensors--and command centers, according to DARPA.

The program will have three phrases, with the call for proposals going out now for phase one. The first phase focuses on developing and demonstrating all of the fundamental technologies needed to successfully and cost effectively implement the network and backbone. There are four technical areas to phase one: a steerable e-band transceiver with pointing, acquisition, and tracking (PAT) capabilities; efficient e-band power amplifier and power combining; a backbone network with discovery; and mobile hotspots system design.

To develop the hotspots and backbone, DARPA envisions a range of mobile assets--in the air via unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs); traveling on the ground on top of military trucks; as well as fixed ground infrastructure--that will provide a 4G backbone network that even the most remote ground soldiers can access, the agency said.

The phase's first technical area in particular, PAT technology, is key to the success of the program, as the technology is not commercially available and must be custom developed, according to DARPA. PAT technology will provide the high connectivity from the backbone network to the forward-located hotspots. It also is key to connecting UAVs so they can serve as flying nodes on the network's backbone, according to the agency.

Proposals for DARPA's Mobile Hotspots program are due March 26.

In addition to DARPA's efforts to give soldiers better mobile access, the military has other projects in place to improve communications in war zones. The Army, for instance, plans to deploy a mobile battlefield network based on Google's Android platform.

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