Software Improves Connections to Robots

By Grace V. Jean
Troops who rely on robots for various missions are increasingly being handicapped by limited radio ranges and airwaves jamming.

Small unmanned aerial vehicles and ground robots lack adequate onboard computing power to transmit communications efficiently in jammed or weak signal locations, says Garret Okamoto, president of Adaptive Communications Research Inc., based in San Diego.

Researchers at the company have developed software that can eliminate or reduce interference and extend transmission ranges on devices with limited hardware processors.

Radio signals typically bounce off walls and other objects in the environment before reaching the intended destination. That reduces the range and reliability of transmissions. Maximizing the signal while minimizing interference through a process called beamforming typically requires processors to compute algorithms at high speeds.

Okamoto says that the software his company is producing takes a non-traditional approach to the computation. A new algorithm called non-Eigen decomposition, or NED, allows beamforming with minimal computational resources. Because the solution requires less processing power, computationally limited systems such as UAVs and ground robots will be able to use beamforming to gain the benefits of interference mitigation, range improvement and battery-life extension. 

“ACRi’s NED beamforming algorithm uses less computations than current techniques because we do things in a completely new way,” says Okamoto. “This is like how the compact fluorescent light bulbs are replacing standard incandescent light bulbs … NED saves computational power without sacrificing much in performance [just as] the change in light bulbs saves electricity without sacrificing light.”

The software is designed to work with existing hardware, Okamoto adds. It is being developed with a $100,000 small business innovation research grant from the National Science Foundation.
ACRi scientists are building a hardware prototype consisting of software-defined radios to demonstrate the NED algorithm to potential customers. “We’re hoping to do a demo early next year,” says Okamoto.

What he wants to show is the software’s ability to facilitate communications in a supposedly no-signal environment, such as radios in close proximity to a counter-roadside bomb jammer. “Even if the devices were three centimeters away from the jammer, the technology would make it possible for the radios to exchange communications with each other,” he says.

In anticipation of future robotics-driven operations, the company is embarking on research with Santa Clara University to pursue a technology that would allow multiple robots to form a virtual antenna array to help each other transmit signals in high-interference situations, such as inside buildings. That project has not yet been funded.

The researchers also are investigating adaptive beamforming algorithms for high-power interference environments, such as aboard Navy ships.

Okamoto believes the software would have nonmilitary applications as well. For rescue workers, radio communications after natural disasters or during operations in signal-averse areas, such as mine shafts and tunnels, can be problematic. The technology could be applied to those handheld devices in the same way.

Cell phones eventually will require greater range for transmitting data without increasing power consumption of batteries. The NED technology could help users attain higher quality signals and longer lasting batteries, says Okamoto.

Topics: C4ISR, Tactical Communications, Robotics

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