We need SDR now

Recent worldwide events have shown that we can no longer wait for Software Defined Radios (SDRs) in military and civilian applications. For once, the obstacle is neither perception nor technology – it’s simply a matter of money. And not that much money, since COTS equipment already exists. World events like last year’s Indian Ocean tsunami, hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the United States, and the recent earthquake in Afghanistan’s Muzaffarabad region and neighboring Pakistan all point to the need for interoperable communications equipment and infrastructure.

In emergency and chaotic situations, using portable wireless radio equipment is by far the most efficient way to communicate when disasters or terrorism wipe out land-based systems. Though robust, battery-backed up Plain Old Telephone Service (POTS) and cellular phone basestations are in fixed and often vulnerable areas subject to floods, earthquakes that topple towers, or terrorism.

On June 4 of this year, Operation Atlas was the first airborne counterterrorism “war game” drill in the United States since 9/11. It was followed nearly four months later by the real events of hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Both the Atlas exercise and the hurricanes uncovered critical and deadly weaknesses in the communications abilities of first responder civilian and military personnel. In short: inadequate infrastructure, planning, and radios that don’t talk between organizations lead to simulated – as well as actual – life and death situations.

Articles published in this issue of Military Embedded Systems by industry experts such as Spectrum Signal Processing, General Dynamics C4 Systems, Composable Logic, and SCA Technica  (page XYZ) all define SDR as digital radios that can create multiple waveforms to enable interoperability between legacy radios. The term SDR was originally coined by DARPA’s chief scientist, Dr. Joe Mitola, and has grown into the basis for the DoD’s massive Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program that seeks to bridge communications between dozens of legacy military radios and ultimately replace them.

The technology exists today, and JTRS progress remains strong with tens of billions of dollars in congressional funding ($12 - $15 billion, according to my estimates, Boeing, and Xilinx). But the commercial and civilian worlds – which include police, fire, city and state officials and even FEMA and the Red Cross – lag far behind with outdated and RF communications that generally can’t talk to each other, much less to the military such as the National Guard troops who eventually descended upon New Orleans.  The fundamental technologies needed for SDR include low-power processors such as those from ARM used in cell phones, DSPs from companies like TI and Analog Devices, and partially reconfigurable FPGAs from the likes of Altera, Xilinx, and others. The software “middleware” called the SCA that’s necessary to make it work has been developed by the DoD and is available from various sources and administered by the Software Defined Radio Forum (SDRF).

The cost of failing to deploy SDRs is well-documented. The war game Operation Atlas showed that only United Airlines and the FBI could communicate with the “hijacked” airplane via the traditional Aircraft Communications Addressing and Reporting System (ACARS). But officials participating in the exercise from Massachusetts’ Massport, state police, Federal Air Marshal Service, Homeland Security, Coast Guard, FAA, and others could only wait for information to trickle in. A key failure noted at the end of the exercise: Information sharing and direct communications between agencies is lacking.

So too were the lessons from Hurricane Katrina.  Do a Google search on “Katrina interoperable communications” and 33,500 hits are returned. With everything under water, only walkie-talkies and a few police networks survived. In one instance, FedEx noticed that one of their own radio antennas atop a 54-story building had survived. FedEx technicians and the Army’s 82nd Airborne rigged up a generator to the transceiver and distributed 125 walkie-talkies to emergency responders. Cell phone companies deployed portable base stations to replace damaged towers. The myriad agencies involved in disaster relief not only had no communications infrastructure, they couldn’t have talked to each other even if they did.

This situation is a travesty of incredible proportions. SDR pioneers such as Vanu already sell and have deployed COTS systems such as the Anywave Base Station that can realize multiple cell phone protocols so that one basestation can talk to all major carriers via GSM, CDMA, WCDMA, and so on. The product is being tested at the Idaho National Laboratory and deployed by Canada’s Ice Wireless in the northwest territories as well as by Mid-Tex Cellular in Texas. Vanu has an SDR version that mounts in a first responder’s vehicle that can be programmed to bridge police frequencies with fire and other officials, allowing different radios to interoperate. And the equipment is based on low-cost Pentium processors and FPGAs.

Clearly the issue isn’t lack of demand or technology. Congress recognizes that interoperability failures demand “immediate action.” A report written by senators McCain (AZ) and Lieberman (CT) and representatives Harman (CA) and Weldon (PA) and published in the Washington Post on 9/18 indicates we’re no better off four years after 9/11, and that “Policymakers at all levels have failed…by not taking action on interoperability.” The very next day, the Senate failed to agree on waiving budget rules that would provide funding for interoperable communications equipment. (The bill failed 40-58.)

As I write this. Hurricane Wilma is now at Category 5 and is bearing down on Florida. Can we afford to wait another four years for SDR’s promise of interoperable communications?