Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency tests software that turns mobile devices into cloud-like communication networks on the battlefield.
DARPA Robot Challenge: Disaster Recovery
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The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is testing new software-based approaches to create cloud-like computing networks on the battlefield, using the power of smartphones and radios. The lessons DARPA learns are expected to be useful not only to U.S. troops in remote locations, but also to first responders when traditional communications infrastructure fails or is unavailable.
Today, forward-deployed troops have to communicate with leaders outside the combat arena to get information -- from photos of local leaders to biometrics of prisoners and civilian suspects, maps to troop movements. Connectivity frequently is an issue, causing problems for personnel looking for information from higher-ups and updates from other units that might be nearby.
Today's smartphones are introducing opportunities that didn't exist a few years ago to overcome some of those challenges.
"With 64 gigabytes of storage in a single smartphone, a squad of nine troops could have more than half a terabyte (500 GB) of cloud storage," said Keith Gremban, program manager for the Content-Based Mobile Edge Networking program, in a DARPA press release. "CBMEN taps into that huge capacity."
Using CBMEN software uploaded to smartphones and military radios enables individual soldiers and Marines to communicate with each other even when they are unable to reach higher headquarters units. The software effectively converts each person's mobile device into a server, so content is generated, maintained and distributed hyperlocally. As long as personnel are within frequency range, the CBMEN software automatically shares updates, creating a "tactical cloud" that expands and contracts as troops move closer or farther away, allowing the information to be shared in multiple places at once and minimizing the impact of communications disruptions.
"CBMEN may not sound revolutionary, because people take server access for granted when cell towers, fiber-optic connections and 4G/LTE networks are so widely available worldwide," Gremban said in the release. "But when that infrastructure is not available, CBMEN technology enables real-time information sharing where it hasn't been possible before. CBMEN puts secure, private collaboration and cloud storage in your pocket."
It is easy to think of other applications for CBMEN, particularly in disaster response. In many circumstances -- hurricanes, tornados, and wildfires, for example -- communications infrastructure frequently has been damaged or destroyed. Emergency responders from police and firefighters to EMTs and National Guard troops could use their smartphones to quickly establish communications networks and share critical information.
The first phase of CBMEN testing, to prove the concept, was recently completed at Fort A.P. Hill, using Android phones and Army Rifleman Radios equipped with the software.
DARPA is now in Phase 2 of testing, where it hopes to develop ways to improve the efficiency of the information exchange and strengthen security. DARPA said the goal of this next phase is to reduce the number of transmissions and amount of bandwidth needed, with the additional benefit of saving power -- another complication of electronic gear on the battlefield.
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