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DARPA releases details on spectrum challenge

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has released information concerning its innovative challenge to help alleviate the electromagnetic spectrum.

The Spectrum Collaboration Challenge, announced in March with an eye toward ensuring military and civilian wireless devices will have unfettered access to the increasingly crowded and finite electromagnetic spectrum, will involve three year-long phases that begin in 2017. Teams that make it past the two preliminary events will mark the culmination of a championship event in 2019. A grand prize of $2 million is up for grabs for the team with the best software-defined radio solution that collaborates most effectively with a diversity of simultaneously operating radios in a manner that optimizes spectrum usage for the entire communicating ensemble, DARPA said in a release.  Second place will walk away with $1 million and third $750,000.

The spectrum is finite, and many have been concerned that with the increasing amount of devices being introduced both in the military and civilian space, there will not be enough room for the government to perform essential tasks, such as national security, that rely on the EMS.  "What I worry about right now is that the private demand for spectrum is going to exceed our ability to keep pace. We could, if we're not careful, put some national systems at risk," DoD CIO Terry Halvorsen told Congress in March.

"We want to radically accelerate the development of machine-learning technologies and strategies that will allow on-the-fly sharing of spectrum at machine timescales," said Paul Tilghman, program manager for SC2.

DARPA released a pair of broad agency announcements on the FedBizOpps contracting website July 19th that outline program participation and information. The first, notes two tracks participants can enter; participants in the proposal track will enter into a funded contract with DARPA while the open track will welcome a wide range of participants such as commercial companies, startups, universities, or even hackers, most of which have not partnered with DARPA previously. Teams in the open track must pass entrance hurdles demonstrating skills in software-defined radio and artificial intelligence techniques to secure a spot in the challenge. DARPA noted that participants in each track will be treated identically.

The second notice provides details on architectural needs for the completion that include scoring methodology, scenario development testing competitors' collaborative strategies and tactics.

"I am very excited about agile spectral use in the future and ways we can start to think about the technologies that will help shift not just the military sector but maybe on someday the commercial sector to be much more efficient users of spectrum," Stephen Welby, assistant secretary of defense for research and engineering, told Congress in April.

Welby also expressed his excitement for DARPA's effort in this space referencing the challenge. "I am enormously excited about the initiatives that DARPA has started here in the last two weeks to set up prizes associated with very novel use of the spectrum … to think about new ways that we can architect our commercial and military systems to be really efficient users locally, regionally and globally to make the most use of the spectrum we have."

Spectrum operations have become so critical for DoD that leadership has considered making it the 6th operational domain of warfare along with air, land, sea, space, and most recently, cyber.  Breaking Defense reported late last year that Halvorsen's office will be "'the Departmental lead for these efforts' to explore a wide range of policy options for the electromagnetic spectrum, 'to include the potential recognition of the EMS as a domain.'"

Noting that the spectrum must be auctioned off and shared with civilian partners, Maj Gen Sandra Finan, dDeputy CIO, C4 and information infrastructure, capabilities, at the Pentagon, echoed the sentiments of many that the department must be adaptive in its spectrum use.  She also seconded Halvorsen that EMS should be an operational domain.

"I think that spectrum operations are so important that we ought to look at declaring the Electromagnetic Spectrum a domain because we are going to be operating offensively and defensively across that domain," she said at the AFCEA Defensive Cyber Operations Symposium in Washington in April. "So I think that's one of the most important things that we can see in the future."

DARPA said it has also posted a special notice with details on competitor information as well as proposers days in August to answer questions of potential participants.

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