iPads, iPhones Driving Special Operator Demand for Improved Connectivity

By Grace V. Jean
The battlefield video collected by military drones is in such high demand that it is colloquially called Predator porn and soda-straw crack, among other names. No matter the slang, troops want the footage streaming live onto the smallest device possible wherever they may be.
Special operators are no different, except their demands are more challenging.

“We have a lot of guys who are used to having pretty amazing capabilities. They can get good services on iPad or iPhone. They want that speed and quality of service and availability everywhere they do business,” said Tony Davis, program executive officer for command and control, communications and computers at U.S. Special Operations Command. “It’s a lot easier to say that than to do it.” 

The challenge lies not only in controlling and communicating with unmanned aircraft but capturing the video and piping it to analysts and operators who are not within line of sight of the drone.

The program office has purchased a number of laptop computers and handheld devices that allow operators to receive the video stream. “But you have to be in sight of a Predator or Reaper to get video from them,” said Davis. “That means a large portion of people who need the video can’t get it unless I bring it back into the architecture and project back out to them.”

Most of the UAS in the field today have vendor-specific source code in the data stream between the aircraft and the ground control station. That makes it much more difficult for non-line-of-sight users to tap into the video.

Some UAS manufacturers are incorporating non-line-of-sight capability into new aircraft so that they can send a signal directly to a satellite, which then transmits the data back to analysis centers in the United States for processing. “Once it’s out of the line-of-sight arena, it’s easy for us to pull it into the network and send it forward across a tactical satellite linked to a team,” said Davis.

But before it even gets to special operations teams, the larger challenge resides in transmitting the data across commercial satellites. Bandwidth availability and the cost of that bandwidth are limiting factors, especially in the U.S. Central Command area of operations, where special operations forces are concentrated.

While commercial satellite coverage over the region is expansive, conventional military forces, news media and other commercial users largely consume it.

The Defense Department’s interim solution is the Wideband Global Satcom system, a constellation of high-capacity satellites currently being built by Boeing. Three of the satellites have been fielded and are in orbit above the Middle East, Atlantic and Pacific regions. “That’s a great solution for us in some areas, but in the Central Command area of responsibility, as a specific example, it is pretty congested already,” said Davis. “Almost as soon as they get up there, they get saturated.” The challenges are heightened for special operations forces that operate in dozens of other areas that have less satellite coverage. Sending video forward to these teams remains a challenge.

One solution is the SOF deployable node, or SDN, a family of tactical satellite terminals that are intended to be carried in suitcase-sized containers. There are light, medium and heavy versions forthcoming. The light VX system is specifically engineered and optimized for video to solve the non-line-of-sight problem for remote special operators.        

Topics: Robotics, Unmanned Air Vehicles, Special Operations-Low Intensity Conflict

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