DARPA's road show to awareness: SDR Hackfest

U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) representatives have hit the road in a yearlong campaign to raise awareness of what the agency calls the -physical world, a world filled with an untold number of connected devices. DARPA’s Software Defined Radio () Hackfest hopes to propel the rise in demand for and interest in the electromagnetic spectrum as well as raise awareness around spectrum vulnerabilities.

The physical world – inundated with computers, smartphones, smart cars, even smart home appliances – are all connected to the cyberworld, and the electromagnetic spectrum must handle each of these signals. In a release, DARPA Program Manager Tom Rondeau explains that through the Hackfest program he wants to “engage and enable a community of interested engineers and scientists working towards the future confluence of radio and .”

Rondeau started his own blog series documenting Hackfest and providing much-needed information on the topic. The introduction to the site details the project’s goals and missions, which are geared toward raising awareness and bringing together communities. The Hackfest, in particular, is a way for “free and open source software projects to engage and enable communities,” he says.

How does SDR technology fit into this arena? Software-defined radios, designed to send and receive a multitude of waveforms while also switching between waveforms in real time. Now the devices have become cognitive enough to autonomously adjust their parameters and learn from the results obtained, yielding outcomes military leaders want for to enable secure communications without the possibility of interference.

The Hackfest site sets the stage of where SDR technology stands today: Engineers are using software radio technology in more and more applications, including communications and radar systems. Today, information security and cellular technology designers leverage SDR technology due to its scalability and modularity, particularly in securing the immense amount of data running through the Internet.

This isn’t the first Hackfest-related roadshow from DARPA and Rondeau. In February this year, the DARPA Brussels Hackfest focused on radio frequency () interference issues, specifically for commercial communications. While DoD and DARPA have a keen interest in interference issues, Rondeau notes that “these issues are problematic due to the risk they pose for disrupting communications and the operations that rely upon them.”

During the Brussels Hackfest attendees learned that using electromagnetic spectrum means also dealing with security issues, network routing, authentication, antenna placement, and of course power and battery requirements. This is where industry collaboration comes into play: As the site emphasizes, companies must work together because “the design, deployment, and maintenance of wireless systems and networks require the development of a huge number of tools, including software management for code development and debugging, diagnostic tools for addressing problems when devices are fielded, and user interfaces to lower the barriers to using these devices.”

This situation shows why collaboration is necessary. The electromagnetic spectrum is vast; many, many experts are needed to work together to take this technology to the next level. However, in order to get all these people to step up, they must first be aware of the problem. Rondeau wants everyone to be as comfortable as possible in this arena in order to navigate the cyber-physical world.

The yearlong campaign runs through November with the Bay Area SDR Hackfest, a series of events, beginning with a roadshow reaching out to the tech community to raise awareness. The mission, according to the site, is to provide an understanding that the cyber and physical world truly intersect. The goal of the Bay Area event is to better comprehend the “complex relationships we are creating within the EM [electromagnetic] spectrum, and examine in particular the cyber-physical intersection of software defined radio and remotely piloted aircraft.”

This Hackfest is divided into three sections: Hacker space, speaker series, and missions – all culminating in the final Hackfest to be held November 13 through 17 at the NASA Ames Convention Center. During the event in November, expert speakers will take the stage and enlighten the crowd on SDR, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), and cybertechnology. During the Hackfest missions, DARPA is asking the teams to find solutions to goals based on UAVs using SDR tech.

For more information and information on how to get involved, visit https://darpahackfest.com.


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