Military spectrum management & EW challenges driving wireless monitoring tech
Designers in the military RF world are faced with evolving challenges such as sharing bandwidth in a crowded spectrum and electronic warfare threats that can adapt faster than legacy EW systems can respond. In this Q&A with Nick Balon, General Manager for CRFS, he discusses how multi-node networks are enabling high-performance spectrum monitoring and how kits that leverage software defined radio (SDR) can reduce latencies when tracking electronic intelligence (ELINT) signals. Edited excerpts follow.
MCHALE REPORT. Please provide a brief description of CRFS such as the markets it serves, key technology areas, etc., and your role within the company.
BALON: Since 2007 we have been a private company based in Cambridge, U.K. and in Fairfax, Virginia. We are international with activity not only in the U.S., but in Europe and Asia as well. CRFS designs and manufactures RFeye receivers, detectors, and spectrum monitoring systems and provides all the software for these solutions. Our whole philosophy is to provide cost effective, high performance spectrum-monitoring nodes and multi-node networks so that nothing gets missed. We look for potential threats like GPS jammers providing the ability to geo-locate the threat or the point of interference. It is all about distributed real time 24/7 monitoring to gain actionable intelligence from the wireless environment. Our company started in the regulatory sector, but now has moved into military markets such as electronic warfare (EW), spectrum monitoring and electronic support measures (ESM) for defense, and security.
BALON: It starts with the government spectrum sale – The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Advanced Wireless Services 3 (AWS3) – which happened about a year and half ago, when licenses to use the 1695-1710 MHz, 1755-1780 MHz, and 2155-2180 MHz bands were sold to commercial carriers. Until then the military had exclusive use of certain bands of frequency and now have to share it with commercial providers for satellite and broadcast. As you can imagine if someone paid $48 billon for spectrum commercial enterprise they would want to recoup that cost. For example if a military platform is turned on and blanks out service to their customer base this would be unacceptable. The spectrum is going to get more and more crowded creating the prospect for increased disruptions of service so being a good neighbor is increasingly important.
The challenge is how to manage the spectrum to best effect ensuring successful military operations without disruption to commercial networks that could result in the loss of millions of dollars in revenue. For instance it is reported that the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has experienced interference issues on satellite weather data resulting in periodic data loss affecting their ability to continuously monitor regional weather events. The same things could happen on military platforms. Defense users need to avoid potential interference with commercial networks by monitoring the RF environment within their theaters of operation so they can adjust accordingly.
Congress mandated that some of that money from the spectrum sale be put back into the system to manage this for the benefit of the public. DISA (Defense Information Systems Agency) asked industry to set up the National Spectrum Consortium to help manage the spectrum. In the first year about $500 million was funded and there has been about $1.5 billion in funding to date via solicited proposals to help manage the spectrum for military and commercial use.
Our tools monitor broad swaths of spectrum from 9 KHz to 18 GHz to record, map, and play back spectral data to let users know where and what their interference issues are. It can also geo-locate the emitters that may be causing interference. In addition, our software tools provide the ability to collect, record, analyze, and display spectral data so spectrum managers can make informed decision on how and when to deploy assets and plan missions. In the defense world our devices are used at key government test ranges. The challenge for the military is how do they still complete missions in this new commercial environment. They do so via efficient spectrum management.
MCHALE REPORT: What challenges are driving requirements in electronic warfare (EW) applications?
BALON: In EW the challenges are different than with spectrum sharing. With EW you have fast hopping systems such as radar. These systems present new challenges to legacy EW and spectrum monitoring platforms. These platforms continue to be upgraded and patched, but new threats come out daily, and EW systems need the ability to quickly adapt and change to meet these new threats.
Software defined radio (SDR) is enabler for this. SDR is adaptable and responds quickly to new waveforms. Our system is SDR in the ELINT world. We are providing kits to monitor and track ELINT threats as well as artifact testing. Our systems use the latest in GPP, GPU and FPGA technology for compute intensive real-time signal and data processing. This gives our customers the flexibility to adapt to a wide range of operational requirements.
Open architectures are in demand, as the primes and the military end-user don’t want to be left with single point solutions and systems with architectures that are difficult to upgrade. Billions have spent upgrading legacy systems, but they are hard pressed to keep up with fast moving threat landscapes using the latest, low-cost commercial technologies. The only way to counter these threats is by integrating open architecture designs that can be adapted within shorter time scales by inserting the latest computing technologies and open middleware to protect the on-going investment in application software.
MCHALE REPORT: How is your technology used in the military radar market?
BALON: The most significant value of our kit for radar systems is in the test and development area where several channels can be very precisely time linked, coherently if possible, and used, for example, to record a stimulus radar signal and a response radar signal from a jammer to allow the two to be compared in timing, fidelity and accuracy so the effectiveness of the system can be evaluated in terms of actual RF performance against different types of source radar modulations.
MCHALE REPORT: It seems every piece of electronic equipment today is getting smaller -- GPS systems, radios, etc. How have reduced size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements affected your spectrum monitoring designs?
BALON: We have a program working now with unique SWaP requirements. Our distributed system architecture places the RF sensor (receiver) in close proximity to the antenna. We can stream full rate IQ and time data over fiber to the compute clusters and solid-state storage arrays. Multiple data streams can be stored, processed, and made available across the sensor network to provide greatly improve situational awareness. With the distributed sensor approach you can attach small form factor receivers and processing modules where needed and run fiber back to the processing and data distribution platforms. The solution can also be remotely programmed to perform predefined tasks such as wideband sweeps, trigger-on-event and spectrum captures.
This modular architecture enables CRFS to provide solutions in multiple form factors; low SWaP packaged sensors and processing nodes, rack mount board level hardware such as 3U VPX cards with standard data formats over IP and VITA49 for example.
MCHALE REPORT: What are other technology trends affecting the military sector?
BALON: The industry is moving toward having platforms architected with distributed sensor schemes. Instead of a single high-cost sensor, end users now are looking to have multiple sensors distributed across a platform at a lower overall cost. Traditionally you would have a bunch of antennas in a system that all feed back to a processor. We are putting data conversion and formatting at the sensor head so it can be piped into the multi-sensor network and distributed to multiple users as needed.
MCHALE REPORT: During your career which technology has been a game changer for the military market?
BALON: The biggest game changer in the military market in recent years has been the proliferation of commercial technologies for military applications. As we all know the rate of change in the commercial sector with new wireless technologies, inexpensive drones, hand-held computing devices, etc. has been phenomenal. Today the life cycle of commercial technologies is often at the longest a few years and in some cases it can be measured in months. In the types of warfare we face today our opponents use this commercially available technology very effectively. The challenge facing our military is to evolve their technologies equally as fast by leveraging commercially available technologies and creating traditional countermeasure systems that can keep up with the emerging threat situation.
MCHALE REPORT: What will be the next disruptive technology or mindset in your industry?
BALON: The Internet of Things or the Internet of Everything, however you want to phrase it, this trend is driving the demand for bandwidth and there is only so much spectrum out there. It’s not an unlimited resource. When your washing machine, toaster, and house alarm system, are networked together and “talking” to each other it eats up bandwidth. Our infrastructure is so dependent on bandwidth that it’s driving and fueling the spectrum management industry. We are right at the cusp of it now, and it’s causing all kinds of issues. Problems are occurring at airports where interference is occurring on GPS signals for ground crews. It’s becoming a serious concern for officials responsible for public safety within such facilities.
Everything is connected now. State actors and private individuals can track anyone and are going around jamming their signals so you don’t know where they are. Down in Dade County, Florida, the state’s Emergency Management System (EMS) went down for a week, as it was inadvertently jammed. They used a handheld detector to fly around the city and locate and shut down the jamming sources. There are inexpensive jammers with extenders for Wi-Fi and the like that put out half a watt of power and can disruption. It is a real issue and a real problem.