At a summer C4ISR Ground Activity at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst, New Jersey, the Communications-Electronics Research, Development and Engineering Center (CERDEC) showed it was possible to send emergency medical information through a soldier radio and across a 4G LTE connection with no break in signal.
"There is definitely a benefit to having this capability out there, to be able to maintain the mission even in areas where there is discontinuity in coverage," said Thomas Sepka Jr., chief of the Army Commercial Technology Evaluation and Integration Branch within CERDEC.
The demonstration represented a leap forward in the Army's ongoing offer to craft seamless connectivity across different communications platforms. Launched in 2013, the Multi-Access Cellular Extension (MACE) program continues to make strides in telecommunications and the ability to bridge the breaks between Wi-Fi, 4G LTE and Soldier Radio Waveform can have immediate tactical implications.
"The work we are trying to do is to provide this capability where all these things happen seamlessly in the background," said Steven Omick, president of prime contractor Vencore, which recently presented a successful demonstration of MACE as part of the Army's Network Integration Evaluation process. "We want to provide this very straightforward set of interfaces to allow the war fighter to do what they need to do without having to think about it too much," he said.
The military is eager to continue work on a tool that will help soldiers to experience uninterrupted network integration. In a battlefield situation with limited infrastructure and constant movement, it has become crucial to pass along bandwidth-heavy data without having to fiddle about with changing channels or, worse, losing connectivity altogether.
"The military isn't going to have fixed towers, so we want to have another way of connecting these Nett Warrior phones and their great applications to allow people to collaborate," said Brian Casey, an engineer with Commercial Technology Integration and Evaluation Branch of CERDEC Space and Terrestrial Communications Directorate's Tactical Communication Division.
Nett Warrior is an integrated dismounted situational awareness and mission command system for use during combat operations, designed to deliver strategic intelligence at the tactical level. Maintaining constant connectivity with Nett Warrior is one of the chief goals of MACE, which aims to integrate with the Warfighter Information Network-Tactical command and control system.
"The Army is highly mobile and we don't have the ability to deploy very thick infrastructures on the battlefield, so there are going to be some discontinuities in coverage," Sepka said. "What MACE provides is the ability to hand off seamlessly through these discontinuities."
In principle, MACE could not only eliminate gaps between but also extend the range of existing high-bandwidth networks. Sepka paints a scenario in which a soldier steps out of 4G LTE range. If there's another soldier still in range, MACE would forge an automatic network between them. Things could go further, with that single soldier generating a high-bandwidth mesh of peers well beyond the original signal radius.
Vencore executives say they are relying on commercial technology as a starting point, but adjustments still must be made.
"We want to be able to draw from this incredible amount of technology that has been developed in commercial space," Omick said. "We are going through the effort to get this framework in place using commercial technology, while still making sure that the security elements and the resilience of it are satisfactory for military uses."
Sepka said he is looking forward to MACE responding to a set of telecommunications requirements that goes even further beyond commercial capabilities in the effort to meet the specific needs of a battlefield scenario.
"With commercial they put towers up, they strategically place their network operations centers, they do a lot of planning and they have the infrastructure to do that," he said. "With military, you don't know where you are going to be tomorrow, and we need to account for that."