DARPA's SDR Hackfest tackles UAVs, electromagnetic spectrum, and communications challenges

MOFFETT FIELD, Calif. The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency’s (DARPA) Bay Area Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest concluded last month displaying innovative ideas on the challenging communications issues that stem from the electromagnetic (EM) spectrum along with the propagation of wireless-enabled devices.

The DARPA Hackfest was created to engage the SDR community, Tom Rondeau, a program manager in DARPA’s Microsystems Technology Office (MTO) explains. Eight already qualified teams competed in the hackfest to develop specific soutions gearing towards the “Hackfest Missions.”

Rondeau, who led the event, says “The Hackfest provided community members with a place to interact with experts and explore new ideas around the potential for the technology, and our speaker series at the event challenged attendees to contemplate everything from the trajectory of the UAV [unmanned aerial vehicle] industry to the challenges we must address to ensure the free and open sharing of software.”

Each Mission focused on the link between ground stations and unmanned aerial vehicles (). These links are susceptible to breaking due to interference, EM congestion, or other communications issues.

“The future use of –whether on land, in water, or in the air–will require far more coordination of the communications channels among all involved users. Trading off resource constraints of spectrum, processing power, and security risks, the Hackfest challenged teams to think through the whole stack from the application layer down to the physical,” Rondeau adds.

Hackfest teams were asked to tackle one of the three Missions throughout the week.

Mission One aimed to find a way to enable communications between a ground station and a UAV with a blocked or obstructed communication pathway. Two of the participating teams took on Mission One, leveraging a number of open-source technologies to extend communications between the ground station and the obstructed UAV.

Teams were tasked with using a second UAV to create a relay link for the ground station to the obstructed UAV. This first Mission simulated real-world circumstances in which communication links can be denied for any number of reasons–from physical barriers to deliberate or accidental EM interference.

Parsons – a team of cybersecurity experts – added authentication methods to their solutions, Rondeau explains. Raytheon BBN Technologies and SSCI “provided code by using the kernel’s BATMAN (Better Approach to Mobile Adhoc Networking)–a routing protocol that intelligently distributes information across a network—to rethink the mission as a network of nodes instead of separate ground stations and UAVs that were given different tasks.”

For Mission Two, the goal was to demonstrate repeated transfer of control of a moving UAV between multiple ground stations. To jointly address Mission Two and One, one team sought to create a solution that considered every node in their system, whether a ground station or UAV, to be a network.

“Team Platypus Aerospace from Aerospace Corporate sought to address scaling problems beyond two or three drones by building a full mesh network solution with authentication and built-in encryption,” Rondeau says. “The solution the team developed to address both Mission One and Two could have applications for large swarms of drones where authentication of units within a swarm, as well as the messages passed between them, needs to originate from inside the swarm itself or its command and control station.”

Mission Three tasked teams to find new applications for SDR-UAV systems through the integration of sensors and the seamless transfer of information between a UAV and a ground station. One goal of the mission was to create a solution that could help improve how ground stations and UAVs interact, whether by reducing signal latency, allowing for the management of multiple drones without confusion, or some other means.

Mission three was tackled by four teams throughout the mission, “Texas Radio Terminator, a team of graduate and undergraduate students from Southern Methodist University in Taos, took an approach of mixing sensors and feedback from the device in ways that should lead to better decisions about how to communicate and coordinate tactics with drone technology in the future,” Rondeau says. “Another university-led team, DeepEdge, used computer vision to recognize and track a face with the UAV. The approach used by this team, comprised of students and professors from University of California, Irvine and University of Southern California, demonstrated the possibilities of using autonomous tracking by making use of the application layer (computer vision) and the physical layer (SDR) for managing the computing and communications resources available. The team from Assured Information Security also took on Mission Three, creating new physical channels for each sensor, which provides a means to better manage spectrum resources.”

At the end, all teams came to the same conclusion: collaboration is key. “Teams tapped on-site experts and resources, other teams, and the hacker-space community, generating the collaboration we hoped would be catalyzed by the event,” Rondeau states. “What we learned from this experience is that there is still more to be done to progress SDR, but the active involvement of a growing community will help energize efforts to keep things moving forward.”

Learn more about DARP SDR Hackfest: https://darpahackfest.com/.

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