Canada’s Business Incubator Program Funds New Technology for Military Communications
U.S. defense contractor Rockwell Collins is an established global player in the military communications industry. But as the company seeks customers for its new tactical communications products, it is looking to the Canadian market as a potential launch pad.
Canada agreed to fund and test the company’s wideband high-frequency prototype radios, betting that Rockwell Collins eventually will produce these systems domestically for Canada’s armed forces, and later export the technology around the globe.
Wideband HF is becoming an increasingly attractive option for militaries and private industries that are looking for alternatives to satellite communications, analysts said. The Canadian government is interested in buying Rockwell Collins’ wideband HF technology, but the radios are not yet ready for production. Under the “build in Canada innovation program,” the company will receive funds to accelerate the lab-to-market process, said Alan Prowse, Rockwell Collins vice president and managing director for the Americas.
In this venture, everyone wins, Prowse said in an interview. Canada gets new technology for its armed forces produced domestically, and Rockwell is able to parlay is sales to Canada into a much bigger international market.
“We see a significant export market of more than $250 million in the next five years” for wideband HF, said Prowse. Rockwell Collins at large currently earns about $1 billion a year from export sales.
The company’s wideband HF technology was developed at its Ottawa location. It was selected in March to participate in the “build in Canada” innovation program, the company announced May 27 during the CANSEC arms trade show in Ottawa.
The government was looking for technologies that are close to “production ready” but still need to be tested and evaluated by the actual users. Canada’s armed forces have been seeking beyond line-of-sight communications that are less expensive and safer from disruptions than satellite networks. Rockwell’s wideband HF, with 240 kilobits per second of data throughput, was seen as a candidate both for the military and for homeland security agencies.
Canadian defense officials set up Rockwell’s wideband HF systems in three locations across the country for month-long tests, Prowse said. The feedback from the users is helping the company figure out what needs to be fixed in order to expedite the development process, he said.
The government is pursuing wideband HF because it believes it could save millions of dollars in data transmission costs, Prowse added. “With SATCOM, you pay for every bit of data that is transmitted over satellite. With HF, the customer has the ability to buy the equipment and the actual transmission is free. That becomes very attractive to many users, not just the military but also embassies, and the shipping and mining industries.”
Rockwell Collins has been in the high-frequency radio business since the 1920s, but the latest batch of products are not “your father’s or your grandfather’s HF,” said Prowse. Typically HF radios have been difficult to operate, noisy and only usable for voice communications because of their inadequate data transmission speed. Modern HF, with 240 kilobits of data per second, is the equivalent of narrowband SATCOM, he noted. “Once you get that much data over a network, you can start doing things like Internet Protocol networks, streaming video over an HF link, and interactive white boarding. It’s mind boggling for a lot of people that remember the HF of decades past.”
Worries about satellite vulnerabilities — including intentional interference and disruption of signals — are fueling the demand for HF, he said. “And we see a lot of interest from embassies and disaster relief organizations that have to operate where there is no infrastructure.”
The Canadian armed forces already own wideband HF tactical radios made by one of Rockwell’s U.S. competitors, Harris Corp. According to a company news release, the radios are used to transmit video clips, images, maps and other large data files at 10 times the data rates compared with existing HF radios, in mountains and urban terrain.