For all the sophisticated systems and weapons to be found aboard naval warships, there is one fundamental area where technology has been trailing: communications over and under the seas.
Sailors have complained that the shipboard environment is so wrought with electromagnetic interference that even simply listening to their iPods requires them to wrap tinfoil around their earbud cords. For a generation of fighters accustomed to text messaging and exchanging email and video instantaneously on shore, lacking a means to communicate rapidly with other watch teams while at sea can be a frustrating — and dangerous — situation.
Radars, engines and other ship systems render many portable communications devices useless on deck. In many cases, those who ply the seas must rely upon the corded, specially shielded systems that have been built into the hulls of their vessels to talk across decks.
The situation promises to get worse as warships become more technologically advanced. Plans for all-electric ships, which could host many more combat systems, will only exacerbate the problem. Future ships, expected to have smaller crews, will require more communications capabilities across the vessel.
But there is hope. As commercial wireless communications technologies have proliferated, signal processing techniques to cancel out interference have been maturing. Researchers who are focused on mitigating jamming and improving the security of wireless networks for reliable transmissions say that such advancements are making the technologies especially conducive for the shipboard environment.
Navies around the world have begun to take note. Like their land-based counterparts, the sea services have found growing needs to share information, video and other data quickly between forces. Many are considering wireless communications to bring their fleets up to speed.
There are also financial reasons for navies to begin embracing such technologies.
“Once you’ve wired up a ship, it’s expensive to replace those systems,” said Garret Okamoto, president of Adaptive Communications Research, Inc., based in San Diego. Unlike in an office building where ceiling panels can be moved to install newer systems, a ship has an inaccessible structure that is costly to unweld for digital upgrades. Moving to wireless technologies can save navies money in the long run, he added.
The U.S. Navy this year plans to begin the deployment of its first wireless technology to ships. The expanded maritime interception operations wireless system will allow crews to communicate directly with boarding teams interdicting vessels several miles away. Using the data link, interdiction units will be able to transmit biometrics data, scanned documents, digital photos and email securely back to the ship. The Navy plans to field the system aboard 97 ships.
Other navies are experimenting with WiFi technologies. Emergency communications on board vessels turned up as a requirement four years ago for France’s submarines and surface combatants, said Phillippe Darche, marketing manager at DCNS, a naval systems company based in Paris.
The company developed a commercial wireless communications and tracking system called SySmart. It enables sailors to exchange voice, data and video wirelessly from anywhere aboard a ship using personal digital assistants, laptops, computers, telephones and other handheld devices. Shipboard sensors, such as video and infrared cameras, can be linked to the Internet and accessed by sailors. The system can be built around existing Ethernet systems and other proprietary wireless networks.
After testing the system successfully aboard the French Navy’s aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, the company is working with several ship programs in France and other nations. It plans to incorporate the technology into the next generation French submarine in 2017.
Under the ocean, sailors still face an age-old communications challenge. Traditionally, submarines communicate with the surface world in two ways. Either the ship makes the initial call, or it waits for broadcasts at set intervals of time.
“The submarine has to stop what it’s doing and come to periscope depth to raise its antenna,” said Bill Matzelevich, senior manager of business development at Raytheon Co.
Until recently, technologists focused upon eliminating the need to expose antennas for the task. But such measures also limited submarine operations.
To liberate submariners and speed up communications, Raytheon this spring will deliver to the Navy a system that enables surface commanders to contact a submarine, no matter its depth or speed. The Deep Siren Tactical Paging System employs buoys that receive radio frequency transmissions from Iridium satellites. They convert the transmission into acoustic energy and broadcast the signal underwater. Aboard the submarine, a laptop displays the transmission in plain-text messages.
“In the days of old, it could have taken up to eight hours or more just to tell a submarine, ‘stop what you’re doing and go do something else,’” said Matzelevich. “Today, it’s possible for someone to pick up a phone and send a message, and within five or 10 minutes, a submarine receives it.”
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