Spectrum management, security, cognitive radio trending in MILCOM market

Every month the McHale Report will host an online roundtable with experts from the defense electronics industry – from major prime contractors to defense component suppliers. Each roundtable will explore topics important to the military embedded electronics market. This month we discuss trends such as software-defined radio (SDR), spectrum management, security, and commercial-off-the-shelf (COTS) use in military communications applications with exhibitors from the MILCOM 2016 show held earlier this month in Baltimore.

This month’s panelists are: Manuel Uhm, Director of Marketing, Ettus Research, a National Instruments company and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Wireless Innovation Forum (formerly the SDR Forum); Jonathan Joiner, Distribution & Marketing Manager, Wakefield-Vette; Chip Downing, senior director business development, Aerospace and Defense, Wind River Systems; Michele Kasza, Vice President of Sales for Connect Tech; and , Group Editorial Director with Military Embedded Systems and Proprietor of the McHale Report.

MCHALE REPORT: What trends did you see emerging at the MILCOM this month in Washington? What was the buzz?

UHM: Spectrum sharing and spectrum collaboration are becoming reality due to spectrum sharing networks, such as the Citizen’s Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) which will allow mobile operators to provide broadband services commercially in the same 3.5GHz spectrum that is used for some naval radars. Spectrum sharing is clearly the way of the future for spectrum management; otherwise, the spectrum becomes artificially constrained by exclusive use licenses. DARPA’s Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (S2C) is a three year Grand Challenge with $3.75 million of prize money at stake to incentivize contestants to develop the best machine learning algorithms to allow radios to communicate in dynamically changing and challenging RF conditions. National Instruments showcased a smaller size live demo of the SDR infrastructure that will be used to develop the machine learning algorithms by the contestants, which generated a lot of interest.

Also, although this is not particularly new, there continues to be a trend towards multi-mission profile radios which can do communications, as well as other surveillance and EW tasks, such as signal intercept, direction finding, spoofing, and jamming.

JOINER: From our perspective as a hardware supplier to major MILCOM/defense companies we have seen an uptick in the importance of security. Although much of this is rooted in software related infrastructure, new generations of products are being designed and tested. While this is being done we are also seeing many companies/customers retrofit hardware application designs in order for mission critical devices to perform in the many unique harsh/ rugged environments.

DOWNING: There were three primary trends that I noticed at MILCOM this year. The first: COTS. The standard today is COTS solutions. In the past, companies were searching for R&D funding to assemble solution stacks in house. At MILCOM this year, vendors were displaying ready-to-deploy COTS solutions with a focus on size, weight, and power (SWaP), platform / system performance, and security. Multi-function, multi-supplier consolidated platforms were the norm.

The second is software-defined; we have evolved from having, for example, software-defined radio waveforms, be portable across multiple purpose-built platforms to the platforms supporting a wide range of signals processing, dynamic, multi-protocol communications, and support functions. The U.S. military started software-defined platforms, but now the industry has commoditized this concept with COTS software-defined-everything (SDx) platforms that have far higher performance and far lower costs than traditional, purpose-built military communications systems.

Finally: security. System security, cybersecurity, and information assurance for military communications continue to be tough challenges. Advanced COTS platforms supported by technologies, and coupled with dynamic software-defined solutions, are now replacing traditional multi-level secure (MLS) and multiple independent levels of security (MILS) running on proprietary platforms with proprietary application separation technologies. These solutions leverage hardware virtualization assist intellectual property (IP) and security IP in silicon – this is impossible to match in performance, capability, and cost with low-volume software and proprietary hardware platforms. And the tighter coupling of advanced server microprocessors, like Intel’s Xeon technology with powerful , will drive security, performance, and utility even higher.

KASZA: We are definitely seeing a shift towards utilizing GPGPU’s [general-purpose graphics processing units] as an emerging technology.  Not necessarily moving away from standard x86 compute platforms, but integrating distributed parallel GPGPU platforms.  With the use of such platforms today's warfighter has the ability to process large amounts of data in real-time with deployable field ready technology, something that would normally have to be done offsite in a HPC or /enterprise environment.

MCHALE: Improved security and enhanced latency are always trending topics at this show, but one inexpensive approach to solving off-grid networking problems and size, weight, and power constraints was the highlight on the show floor. A company called goTenna makes a line of devices that essentially turns your iPhone or mobile smartphone into a secure via ad-hoc VHF/UHF . Special Operations forces are looking at the technology as a way to train allied military/police forces without using expensive tactical radios. They were designed originally for hikers to communicate with each other when in remote locations. They could even be attached to a drone to function as a flying bay station.

MCHALE REPORT: What are the hot application areas for COTS suppliers in the military communications niche such as software-defined radio, security, spectrum management, satellite communications, etc.?

JOINER: We are seeing increased activity within defense aircraft and ground vehicles. We have seen a good amount of retrofit and new generation products in demand, especially in the radar applications for computer hardware enclosures, and vacuum and dip brazed liquid cooling systems/plates. Another trend we are seeing military communication applications in the hardware arena is improving heat dissipation and reducing the weight of the hardware device. While electronics are getting smaller but increasing with heat density, it becomes a challenge to design a solution that has zero chance of failure in non-ideal environments.

UHM: While COTS SDR and cognitive radio platforms are still in high demand for SIGINT, COMINT, ELINT, and waveform development, there is increasing interest in using SDR/CRs for cybersecurity and hacking research. With the proliferation of wireless devices, both commercial and military, cyberattacks committed via hacking of wireless devices is a very real threat and more research is needed to mitigate and defend against the risks. As an example, there are public cases where Ettus Research USRPs have been used to hack key fobs and cars to gain unauthorized entry into vehicles, as well as hack a computer with an air gap to derive the password. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to come up with potential hacks with greater far-reaching consequences.

Spectrum monitoring is also a hot application area for COTS suppliers due to spectrum sharing, which requires an Environmental Sensing Capability (), a network of spectrum sensors to identify incumbents in the area which need to be protected from other radios using the same spectrum, and a Spectrum Access System (SAS), which is essentially a database of spectrum usage and a policy engine which determines which radios can transmit on which RF bands in a certain geographic area. Low cost spectrum sensing and monitoring systems, which can be deployed both indoors and outdoors, are a key part of the ESC.

DOWNING: Without a doubt, bringing COTS network function virtualization (NFV) and software-defined everything (SDx) platforms into the military communications are hot application areas for COTS suppliers in military communications, and will be game-changing. A COTS platform like Wind River Titanium Server for example has six-nines uptime capabilities, dynamic configuration, and failover technology based upon open architecture and open source strategies, and a wide range of uses so it can absorb the failure of other platforms in the system to keep services available to the user.

KASZA: The hot application areas are in computer vision, situational awareness, and deep learning applications.  Again these platforms are supported by GPGPU technology that are now readily available in ruggedized deployable COTS embedded systems.  These systems range from high-powered systems that support both the latest in Intel processors and combine dedicated GPUs with hundreds or thousands of CUDA cores for parallel processing, through to small form factor low power solutions making use of technology such as the NVIDIA Jetson TX1 (embedded ARM + GPU module), providing up to a TFLOP/s performance in sub 10 watts.

MCHALE: Applications such as cognitive radio and spectrum management will rely heavily on extremely high-speed . For example to create a cognitive radio that can adapt to various scenarios without human oversight you need a very powerful processing engine fueled by COTS embedded computing systems that not only leverage commercial processors from Intel, but also high-performance FPGAs. On the software side secure virtualization solutions from companies such as Green Hills Software and Wind River are popular.

MCHALE REPORT: How is the military communications market performing compared to others such as radar, avionics, , etc?

JOINER: Regardless of the market niche, we are seeing an increase in demand for upgrades and retrofits of military electronics systems with restrictive size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements.

UHM: The MILCOM market in the U.S. is largely in a stage of deployment which means relatively less investment in research and development (R&D), which has a negative impact on the COTS industry since most deployed military communications radios are custom developed by large primes. There continues to be significant R&D investment in unmanned systems/drones and electronic warfare (EW), which drives requirements at both ends of the spectrum for low cost, highly SWaP-constrained radios for data links, to very high performance, low latency computing systems for threat detection and identification. As the trend towards multi-mission profile radios continues, it will be harder to break out the MILCOM market from the SIGINT/surveillance market from the EW market as they blend together in the future.

DOWNING: Military applications segments are moving away from purpose-built platforms to the use of COTS microprocessors with static (safety) or dynamic (capability) virtualization; and when more horsepower is needed, augmenting these compute platforms with , GPU, and GPGPU processors. Software-defined capabilities drive the use of COTS technologies, and standards like ARINC 653, FACE, POSIX, and OpenStack, coupled with open architecture and open source strategies, ensure that they will be available to a wide range of military systems and suppliers.

KASZA: We find the military market is slower to adopt new technologies than the commercial/industrial markets, potentially due to some of the certification/qualification steps required before deployment.   That being said, we do see many military customers mandated to transition to COTS based products which can not only save money, but get the latest technologies into the field faster than ever before.

MCHALE: Military communications procurement is largely based on deployments of troops, ground vehicles, and other platforms that require radios or other types of communication devices. As the U.S. reduced its military footprint worldwide in the last few years, the orders for radios have decreased as a result. As Uhm suggests above the best bet for COTS is for increased IRAD from the prime contractors, and while that has been a bit stagnant of late, there is hope with an incoming Republican Presidential administration combined with a Republican Congress in 2017 that the defense budgets for R&D will increase and sequestration will end. If sequestration ends it will benefit the entire military electronics industry, from the primes to third tier suppliers. For more on that, read my blog here: President-elect Trump, sequestration, and the COTS market.