Radio technology trends and NDIs

An article I wrote years ago on Software-Defined Radio (SDR) technology said SDR was “here, there, and everywhere.” Well it seems it finally is everywhere. SDR is well beyond the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program and everywhere from the warfighter’s hands to high-speed railway transportation to public safety applications.

The JTRS program itself has evolved quite a bit over the years, and it is debatable how successful it was as an acquisition model – especially after considering the multiple delays and high cost of development. However, as a result of the program, warfighters are getting radios that are compatible with traditional waveforms like Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS) and new ones like the Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW) to enable video, data, and voice communications.

“It is important to remember that JTRS is not the equivalent of SDR. JTRS is a program and SDR exists independent of that program,” says Lee Pucker, CEO of the Wireless Innovation Forum. “I personally think there have been a lot of successes coming out of JTRS. A lot of technology has been developed that would not have been developed without JTRS. I cannot say for a fact that the adoption of SDR technology worked in defense communications because of the leading position the JTRS program took. Maybe if JTRS had not been around maybe another would have taken on that role, but the JTRS program is the one that did.” For more from Pucker on SDR, see his article in the Special Report section on page 22, cowritten by David Renaudeau of Thales.

We probably won’t see another long-term development program like JTRS any time soon. Today’s budget pressures and the reluctance of the Department of Defense to fund any type of research and development effort might quickly make the JTRS acquisition concept a thing of the past. From here on, procurement through Non-Developmental Items (NDIs) will be the norm. Capability sought from the now-canceled JTRS Ground Mobile Radio (GMR) segment is being procured as an NDI: the Mid-Tier Networking Vehicular Radio (MNVR).

“There are multiple defense industry participants that have the capability and services the government needs. Therefore, instead of funding a five-year program, they can leverage work that already has been done on a broader scale,” says Troy Brunk, Senior Director, Airborne Communication Products at Rockwell Collins in Cedar Rapids, IA. “This also helps them better navigate the budget constraints everyone is going to face across the industry. It does not matter whether or not there is a program of record with NDI; it is about the ability to take technological capabilities and have them available across platforms in terms of funding and support.”

In this edition’s Special Report on SDR on page 18, Manuel Uhm, Chair of the User Requirements Committee of the Wireless Innovation Forum, says, “SDR is now considered to be largely a solved problem … and JTRS is essentially now a production program with very little funding for research and development.” He says cognitive radio is the next big technology problem being solved for not only military but commercial applications as well.

SDR technology will be used as the backbone for developing cognitive radio, which is radio in which communication systems “are aware of their internal state and environment … and can make decisions about their radio operating behavior by mapping that information against predefined objectives,” according to the Wireless Innovation Forum website (www.wirelessinnovation.org).

General Dynamics C4 Systems engineers are currently investigating a cognitive radio capability that would enable the identification of possible radio and sensor jamming threats without affecting “friendly signals,” says a company representative. They are also working on the intelligence of cognitive radio. For example, your smartphone could sense where you are by automatically and continuously checking the availability of radio spectrum in the area. It plans how your call or access to the Internet will be fastest, the best quality, and with the least amount of power necessary, she adds.

“We are doing and have been engaged for a while with early algorithms and concept demonstrations for cognitive radio fundamentals and spectrum intelligence gathering via SDR radios,” Brunk says. “We also are looking at other capabilities we can engage through advanced networking waveforms. Most of the work being done in this area [is] either sensitive or classified, so there is not a lot of disclosed information available. Cognitive radio capability will take time to develop and mature as a technology – think about how long we’ve taken to mature SDR.”

John McHale jmchale@opensystemsmedia.com