Military Could Benefit From Interplanetary WiFi

By Eric Beidel
New Internet protocols designed to link the planets could help troops communicate and exchange data in Earth-bound environments where connectivity is weak.

Google Vice President Vinton Cerf has been working with NASA and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency on protocols that can be used to create what he calls an “interplanetary Internet.”

One of the fathers of the Internet who worked at DARPA back in the 1970s, Cerf has been working on this concept since 1998. He has tested the Delay and Disruption Tolerant protocols aboard spacecraft, marine vehicles and in the wilds of northern Sweden where reindeer herders opened their remote lands to scientists. There, the protocols were used on laptops aboard all-terrain vehicles traveling in and out of the villages.

Cerf installed WiFi service in the villages and had the ATVs wander from place to place, dumping and picking up data as they went. The tests were successful and a report on the results is due out soon, Cerf said at a recent Air Force Association forum on cybersecurity.

During experiments with Marine Corps troops, they first used the traditional Internet protocols on a convoy of tactical vehicles moving into an area where the network would be disrupted. When they lost connectivity, marines could no longer share data through instant messaging and other methods. But when they were armed with the new protocols, they were able to pull data into one vehicle when they lost a connection, store it and then use local communications to send it to other vehicles in the convoy. Network disruptions did not cause critical information to disappear; it simply was stored until a connection returned.

“We got three to five times more data through the system using these protocols,” Cerf said.

But the main focus for the protocols has been in space. When scientists began work on their idea for a solar system-wide Internet, they thought they could use the standard methods written in 1978. Those old communication rules do work on Mars, but with some hiccups. The speed of light is instantaneous on Earth. But at certain times during their rotations, Mars and Earth are 235 million miles apart. It takes 20 minutes to send a bit of data one way, making for a 40-minute roundtrip.

“Imagine you’re trying to surf the net and you click the mouse and 40 minutes later the first bit shows up,” Cerf said. “The planets are rotating, and we haven’t figured out how to stop that.”

Working in this most disruptive of environments led to the creation of protocols that could store data within a network until a clear path of communication is available to relay the information. The new rules have been used on the International Space Station and NASA’s EPOXI spacecraft, formerly known as Deep Impact.

They also have been offered to all spacefaring nations. If they are adopted as standards, all spacecraft launched by any country potentially could communicate with each other. After their primary scientific missions, the equipment could be repurposed to serve as nodes in the interplanetary communication backbone, Cerf said.

Despite the successful military tests, the protocols do not seem to work as well with live video feeds. They would not do much for the operation of unmanned aircraft, unless the environment in which they are used already features a solid connection, Cerf said.

Topics: Infotech, Science and Engineering Technology, Space

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