Army’s New “Smart Radio” May Revolutionize Communications

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Tim Leising, director of the Software-Defined Radio lab.

Everybody loves their smartphone because they can get GPS, the Internets, and all of its fun surprises. They can even make a phone call once in a while.

But what if there were a computer program that would allow your device to not only receive phone calls, but also to automatically adjust to receive WiFi signals and television broadcasts, track GPS, access HAM radio or walkie-talkie frequencies?

Engineers with the U.S. Army and U.S. Navy are working to build a so-called “universal radio” test-bed this year in Fort Monmouth, N.J. They hope to open the gates of “cognitive radio” development to academia, private industry and other Defense Department organizations.

The Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) is creating a Software-Defined Radio lab that will work with the Navy Research Lab to transfer work done previously on the Joint Tactical Radio System to the GNU Radio’s open-source, free software environment.

Tim Leising, director of the Software-Defined Radio lab at CERDEC, said his group is focusing on developing and testing future software defined radios with the GNU platform to promote collaboration and information-sharing via network connections.

In hardware-defined radio, the method of signal reception and transmission is dictated by the infrastructure and mechanics of the device. A car radio is built with electronic hardware that allows it to receive AM and FM signals and play them over your sound system. With the turn of a knob or the push of a button, you tell it which signal to pick up.

Software-defined radio, however, would use a computer program to determine how signals are sent and received, tuning and calibrating itself.

For the Department of Defense, this type of cognitive radio represents a ground-breaking step forward in mobile communications capability. It allows troops to not only use multiple modes, but also to easily switch between radio frequencies and network types. No knobs means no time or awareness lost while trying to tune to a certain channel on the radio.

“We’re investigating the possibilities for future radios,” Leising said. “We’re trying to show the Defense Department that the concept of intelligent radio is possible. We’re trying to get the soldier a radio that they don’t have to fiddle with; all they have to do is turn it on.”

One big issue Leising and his team face is the complexity of the software – the algorithms needed to program smart radios will be difficult to develop while maintaining a user-friendly interface, he said.

He said that the team is currently focusing on specific applications for the equipment.

Discussions about potential surveillance capabilities are going on in the Pentagon, and a cyber security information group is also looking at the possible applications of the technology, Leising said.

“Right now we’re fleshing out the possibilities for cognitive radio,” Leising said.

The team will present the technology’s potential initial application to CERDEC in March and to the Navy in September. For now, Leising said, they’re just working to get the testbed up and running.

[Ian Graham works for the Defense Media Activity’s Emerging Media Directorate.]