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Military research aims to develop self-configuring, secure wireless nets

Researchers develop military-grade intelligent wireless net.

By Ryan DeBeasi,
August 16, 2006 04:06 PM ET - Government, corporate and academic researchers are working on a network that would be able to configure itself, intelligently cache and route data, and allow for fast and reliable sharing of data, all while maintaining military-grade security.

The project is called Knowledge Based Networking and is under development by the Department of Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Researchers from schools including Northeastern, Virginia Tech, Lehigh University have been involved with the project, as have defense contractors including BBN Technologies and General Dynamics.

Academic concepts such as artificial intelligence and Tim Berners-Lee’s “Semantic Web,” combined with technologies such as the Mobile Ad-hoc Network (MANET), cognitive radio, and peer-to-peer networking, would provide the nuts and bolts of such a network. Although the project is intended for soldiers in the field, the resulting advances could trickle down to end users. “Military networks are going to converge as closely as we can to civil technologies,” says Preston Marshall, the program manager of DARPA’s Advanced Technology Office.

Marshall says that current technology is “dominated by wireless access, not really wireless networking.” Instead of using access points to connect wireless devices to a wired network, a Knowledge Based Network would be a decentralized MANET.

“The thing that’s fundamentally different in a wireless environment is that the links are fairly unreliable… nodes join and leave the network more or less randomly,” says David Passmore, research director for the Burton Group. MANETs would be able to route traffic through this ever-changing set of peers to a networked device or the Internet.

Such networks would have no single point of failure. Conversely, current wireless networks can be can be shut down by removing the access point. Passmore imagines that MANETs might even be formed by computers in moving vehicles but adds that “the routing protocols we have with IP are wholly inadequate to that kind of a situation.” More experimentation needs to be done before MANET technology can be standardized and mass-produced, he says, but the Knowledge Based Networking initiative might provide incentive for military contractors to work on the technology.

The ideal MANET would not only choose the best paths for routing packets but would also pick the best radio frequency to use. This would be made possible by so-called “cognitive radio” technology.

Bruce Fette, chief scientist at General Dynamics C4 Systems, explains that cognitive radio “is able to understand the spectrum activity, the network activity and the user activity and select and use the right waveforms, frequencies, and protocols to efficiently support the user and the network.” Such a system would avoid interference, either from other wireless networks or from enemies who want to disrupt communications. It would also understand and obey the local regulations on wireless spectrum use. Fette says such a system will be tested in Ireland next year.

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