WASHINGTON — The U.S. Army Research Lab made important progress in 2020 on projects that will have major implications for war fighter communications and networking in the future.
The projects tackled a wide range of futuristic technologies, from “unhackable” quantum networking developments to an X-ray vision-like project that could enhance surveillance capabilities. The lab also made advances mesh networking, a capability that the Army views as core to the future of its battlefield communications.
Here’s a look at five of the Army’s scientific advancements this year:
A step toward an ‘unhackable’ quantum network
A quantum device developed by Army scientists this year allows large amounts of information to be stored as holographic patterns, an important step toward building a quantum network.
The scientists were able to trap millions of rubidium atoms in laser beams and cool them near absolute zero, allowing for the quantum bits to be stored as patterns or images.
As the research lab put it earlier this year: “To imagine this technology better, picture a canvas or sea in which quantum images or waves can be written. ... Those images or wave patterns, called spin-waves, can then be stored as information. Spin-waves are like the paint for [the] .... metaphorical canvas.”
Kevin Cox, a scientist at the Army Research Lab who worked on the project, told C4ISRNET that the device created could have significant ramifications for secure communications.
“Due to their fundamental nature, quantum bits of information cannot be copied or duplicated. For this reason, high-speed quantum communication networks may allow data transmissions that are impossible to eavesdrop on,” Cox said.
The device, researchers have said, is an important step toward the development of a quantum repeater, a device that could transport quantum information over long distances. One hasn’t yet been built successfully. The development is one step toward delivering game-changing technology to the war fighter.
“It has been proven that — in addition to foundationally secure communications — quantum networks offer unique capabilities to detect exceedingly weak adversarial signals,” Cox said. “Further, quantum networks will be relied upon to interconnect future soldiers, quantum computers, quantum sensors and atomic clocks that will form the backbone of next-generation capabilities.”
Other research concepts are building off the success of the quantum device, in areas such as atomic RF sensors, magnetic sensors and atomic clocks, Cox said. Large-scale quantum networks on a national or global scale are decades off, he noted. In the next five years, the Army Research Lab plans to develop an in-house testbed for a quantum networking device to discover war fighter capabilities in a controlled environment. From there, the team work with researchers at University of Maryland to investigate metropolitan scale quantum networks and “understand and overcome technological challenges associated with long-distance quantum networking,” Cox said.
Improvements in long-range precision fires
This year, researchers achieved technology readiness level four for advanced technologies that will improve the Army’s long-range precision fires in the future.
At TRL level 4, the technology demonstrates that it works in a lab environment, for airframe and flight control, according to Frank Fresconi, program manager of the laboratory’s Long Range Distributed and Collaborative Engagements. Those technologies will improve the ability to maneuver munitions in the future.
Another technology that achieved TRL 4 is known as strap down guidance tech, or estimation and image processing algorithms for accurate fires in contested environments, Fresconi said.
The new capabilities will improve the Army’s “capability to be able to intercept moving ground targets using low cost components,” such as sensors, processors and actuators, he said, noting that the lab’s advancements could be operationalized in 10-15 years.
Next year, the lab plans to tackle advanced energetics, propulsion, flight and warhead mechanisms technology in more extreme environments, such as higher speeds, higher mechanical launch loads, higher thermal flight loads and a more contested electro-magnetic spectrum, Fresconi said.
More energy efficiency with 5G
Army-funded researchers built an electronic device for frequency switching that is 100 times more energy efficient than current capabilities.
Frequency switches, such as those used in mobile phones, flip back and forth among Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, 4G and LTE. These devices, according to Chakrapani Varanasi, division chief of the materials science program at the Army Research Office, are bulky and far less energy efficient with limited range. The new 5G switch uses two-dimensional materials and allows for “easy integration of electronic communication devices in to soldier wearable systems for situational awareness,” Varanasi said.
“The new devices are made using novel single-atom, thick layered materials — hence very low mass — with extraordinary properties that did not exist before in the conventional materials that are currently used,” Varanasi told C4ISRNET. “They enable signal transmission about 100 times faster than current devices, resulting in reduced latency and near-instant data download/upload.”
In the future, the switch can be used in satellite systems, smart radios and “across the Internet of Things or wherever faster, reliable, low-energy data transmission is required,” Varanasi said.
Moving forward, the research will focus on developing devices with more reliability and extended life, as well as advancing manufacturing techniques so the switch can be developed at a higher scale for a wider array of applications.
3D imaging to one day see through blockages
Army-backed researchers took a small step toward what could be considered a form of X-Ray vision. In 2020, the Army sought to make advancements that could allow them to see through “scattered media,” such as thick fog or inclement weather.
The project focused on imaging an object through an inch-thick slab of foam. As light travels through scattered media, the photons scatter. Current imaging systems typically isolate photons that travel directly to the target and back, but the challenge is that very few photons will travel on that path, said David Lindell, a PhD candidate at the Stanford University Computational Imaging Lab. Using an algorithm, the team built a system that could also capture an object’s image using the scattered photons.
“The goal was basically to see through it or develop some kind of X-ray vision,” Lindell said.
Future applications for this research include remote sensing and surveillance in “all types of conditions,” he said.
“You might have these systems deployed on satellites or airplane. And a big challenge in these scenarios of imaging through the atmosphere,” Lindell said. “The atmosphere, the belt acts like a scattering slab, similar to what we demonstrated, albeit at a smaller scales in the lab.”
Future research will include using the system in environments like fog that have the additional challenge of the being in motion.
Mesh networks and radios that last longer
A critical capability for the future of the Army’s battlefield communications is mesh networking, which allows for connection between several nodes to pass data and build a network.
But currently, mesh networking requires radios to be turned on, draining critical and limited battery power. Army researchers built a radio this year could go into sleep mode to save battery but still monitor for traffic and sustain a mesh network.
“So we looked at is how could you make high-performance radios that give you the full performance that DoD needs in their systems, but yet could maintain a network and also let the radios go to sleep, and only wake up when needed,” said Ron Tobin, team leader for energy efficient communications at the Army Research La.
What the team ultimately developed is called the common sensor radio. Old systems are constantly powered up listening for traffic, even if there’s none coming in. The new system is different.
“It can go to sleep and wake up on a schedule once a second, twice a second, every other second, whatever your requirement is to listen for traffic. And then once there is traffic, it can stay up a lot longer to actually to handle the traffic,” Tobin said.
The team also worked on the adaptability of the radio, building it to adjust data rates and power depending on conditions such as interference or noise. They also discovered a system to prevent radios from transmitting at the same time as other radios, preventing radios from essentially talking over each other.
Andrew Eversden covers all things defense technology for C4ISRNET. He previously reported on federal IT and cybersecurity for Federal Times and Fifth Domain, and worked as a congressional reporting fellow for the Texas Tribune. He was also a Washington intern for the Durango Herald. Andrew is a graduate of American University.