The benefits of unmanned systems are numerous and undisputed. They reduce the reliance on human assets for carrying out tactical logistics as well as intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The key benefit here is mission preparedness, leveraging the capabilities of cutting-edge technology to deliver the right information and supplies at the right time.
A major achievement of unmanned systems is also their ability to gather real-time data. Eliminating time delays in data sharing means having full sight of adversary movement and tactics — a crucial advantage in modern warfare. Real-time video imagery, electronic and signals intelligence provided by unmanned systems can give a clear sense of the enemy’s posture and status.
In whole, the information available through the use of unmanned systems is invaluable for determining an enemy’s strengths and weaknesses, and making decisions on tactical employment. But the current discussion on the use of drones and robotic unmanned systems tends to overlook the pressing challenges of their connectivity.
Can unmanned systems be operated securely so that data can be relayed in real-time without opponent interception or interference? The industry has only begun to scratch the surface when it comes to these questions.
5G is no silver bullet
In the same way that the data provided by unmanned systems can only be as useful as the data dissemination process is effective, the technology will be next to useless if the communication network that connects it is not robust or flexible enough to cope with tactical requirements.
Drones in tactical scenarios nowadays are often connected using Wi-Fi technology, not 5G. In fact, and contrary to popular belief, 3GPP 5G technology (that is 5G commercial cellular networks) is unsuited to tactical scenarios because it requires subscriptions to a network operator and supporting infrastructure such as cell towers.
Alternatively, there are private 5G network architectures which are better suited to military operations because they use a dedicated (private) slice of the spectrum, enable a direct connection and low latency. However, the use of spectrum is tightly regulated and only rarely does the end user control the frequencies.
But all these challenges fade compared to the main one – the inherent detectability of all devices connected to any of these networks, be it Wi-Fi, 3GPP commercial, military sub-6 GHz or private 5G cellular networks.
Many companies providing cellular 5G claim they provide encrypted systems but the fact is unmanned devices connected to these networks are easily detected because they generally use spectrum and transmit power levels that can be discovered from hundreds of kilometers away.
It is a given that low probability of detection (LPD) and the associated element of surprise are often crucial for success and survival in military scenarios.
V-Band mmWave is hard to detect
IEEE mmWave-based networks provide LPD and low probability of interception (LPI), they are jam-resistant, and deliver high speed and low latency. This is why they are proving to be a robust solution for delivering connectivity for military unmanned autonomous systems.
MmWave technology exploits license-exempt, non-commercial spectrum frequency bands, such as the V-Band at 57-71 GHz, that is a 14 GHz swath of continuous radio spectrum.
V-band as the unlicensed mmWave radio frequency band has the unique capability of being LPD by its very physical nature. V-band wavelengths cause radio signals to resonate almost perfectly with oxygen molecules in the air – a phenomenon called oxygen absorption. The oxygen creates an incredible spike in attenuation that appears like a brick wall at a distance and creates a curtain of invisibility between a tactical team and its adversary. Within portions of the V-band, connectivity truly has an LPD quality.
Low latency is another essential attribute of a military network. MmWave networks deliver at least an order of magnitude lower latency compared to cellular 5G networks partially due to the point-to-point nature of the networks rather than the centralized network architecture typical for cellular 5G.
A trial of 5G mmWave systems saw this technology interfaced with the networking systems of land vehicles. This use case was then tested in a variety of simulated battlefield scenarios. The beamformed technology was proven to provide 360˚ communications coverage via mesh networking to effectively deliver undisrupted gigabit communications links between vehicles.
An IEEE 5G mmWave-based network is also resistant to a single point failure and self-healing; if the main PCP router is compromised, another node steps up, takes over and the connections remain in place. This is especially relevant to situations where swarms of devices are employed, ensuring that assets are protected and the secure transmission of data is safeguarded.
Limitation of mmWave
MmWave technology, as any technology really, is not without its limitations. As noted by IEEE, mmWaves cannot penetrate walls easily and their path loss is high which reduces the transmission distances.
The implications for military scenarios are significant in that IEEE 5G mmWave-based networks are particularly suitable for tactical scenarios in a high threat environment. For example, at a mobile command post or on the battlefield, tactical networks are subject to harsh environmental conditions, electronic warfare targeting and jamming. In such an environment, military forces need a stealthy tactical network with LPD and LPI.
However, for rear echelons, large military bases and in some forward bases, it makes perfect sense to leverage 5G 3GPP commercial network technology with appropriate security enhancements. It is also sensible to harden the 3GPP commercial technology to extend reach into the air and space domains.
In short, as the world is monitoring the two most recent conflicts in Gaza and in Ukraine where unmanned systems are playing an ever-important role, little attention is being devoted to the lifeline of these systems – their connectivity. The performance and capabilities of unmanned systems are defined by the networks connecting them and military forces will only be able to realize their full potential with the help of high performing LPD tactical networks.
Macy Summers is President & CEO of Blu Wireless Inc., the U.S. subsidiary of UK Blu Wireless Ltd