Humvees, UAVs could create route to Internet in Afghanistan

DARPA plans to bring connectivity to remote battlefields by turning unmanned aircraft and Humvees into mobile hot spots.

The Pentagon is looking into how unmanned aerial vehicles and Humvees can be turned into Internet access points and woven into a sprawling wireless network in war zones such as Afghanistan.

Called mobile hotspots, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency program will tackle the problem of how to bring Internet access to soldiers in remote areas, where little infrastructure exists. If successfully deployed, such hotspots would allow a wider range of handheld devices to run applications for sharing intelligence in theater.

The plan is to develop wireless antennas to be mounted on ground vehicles and Shadow UAVs so they can transmit and receive high-frequency network signals. The military then would stitch together an interconnected Internet infrastructure from these mobile hotspots located all over the battlefield.

Building UAV hotspots in the sky reduces the risk of the Internet going completely dark if physical cell towers that provide connectivity are destroyed. "This is a cell tower-class performance without an infrastructure," Richard Ridgway, a program manager at DARPA, said Tuesday at a proposers' conference in Arlington, Va.

The project aims to create "high-capacity point-to-point links at millimeter-wave frequencies" that will allow data transfer rates at 1 gigabyte per second between wireless nodes, according to the request for proposals. The goal is to speed the transmission of real-time data and enable video chats between soldiers.

The Pentagon will spend $11.8 million on the first phase of the project. That will cover initiatives to determine how antennas can detect wireless signals, maintain connections at distances greater than a kilometer, and be constructed into a reliable network.

Weaving a network from so many moving parts is likely to involve applications of "mesh networking," experts say. That would create a system to allow signals to be propagated and relayed between devices, effectively extending the range of a hot spot.

The millions of dollars in funding at stake "is how you fill a room," Ridgway joked to a packed audience of 150 scientists and defense contractors. But he warned that the Pentagon was seeking "a system that can be afforded by the lowest levels of the troops [and] not something that costs a million dollars a node."

DARPA projects that each data transmission design in one Shadow-compatible pod should cost $60,000 to implement, assuming that 500 pods were purchased. It should cost $50,000 to implement the design in one ground node, provided Defense buys 250, government documents say.

Creating such aerial infrastructure poses technical challenges. "Shadows and other UAVs don't fly as nice and smoothly as a [Boeing] 747" and could cause unstable connections, cautioned Ridgway.

The ultimate aim is to build a wide network, rather than a military-grade, classified access architecture. "We're not giving you all kinds of metrics on the network," said Ridgway. "There's no red-black separation of data." That's security engineering jargon to refer to the separation of signals that transmit classified and nonclassified data.

A "floating" Internet backbone could have far-reaching consequences beyond the military. The Pentagon is not the only agency that is looking closely at how to bring connectivity to unsettled regions. It was reported in 2011 that the State Department and Pentagon had spent at least $50 million on building an independent network inside Afghanistan. The system, created from towers on military bases, was set up to keep the Web running even if official services were disabled.

The U.S. Embassy in Kabul is looking to fund programs to use cellphone technology and other modern communication tools to convey information with the explicit goal of countering extremism, according to a recent grants document. It also is soliciting proposals for how to "strengthen government and parliamentary communication capabilities" and promote citizen journalism.