DARPA chief outlines expansive array of future networking projects

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's incredible array of futuristic research projects - everything from advanced network and communications implementations to powerful laser and unmanned aircraft development as well as developing techniques to help military personnel survive myriad dangerous situations - was on display in a report delivered to the House Armed Services Committee today by the agency's director, Tony Tether.

While Tether's testimony focused on the extremely broad areas of research and development under DARPA's purview, what follows are some of the hottest networking-related programs the agency is working on. Tether said DARPA has many networking programs to help achieve its goal of linking tactical and strategic users through networks that can automatically and autonomously form, maintain, and protect themselves.

DARPA is developing technologies for wireless tactical net-centric warfare that will enable reliable, mobile, secure, self-forming, ad hoc networks among the various echelons that make the most efficient use of available spectrum, he stated. Among them:

* To connect different tactical ground, airborne and satellite communications terminals together, DARPA's Network Centric Radio System (NCRS) (formerly Future Combat Systems-Communications) program developed a mobile, self-healing ad hoc network gateway approach that provides total radio/network compatibility on-the-move in any terrain - including the urban environment. NCRS has built interoperability into the network, rather than having to build it into each radio, so any radio can now be interoperable with any other. Today, using NCRS, previously incompatible tactical radios - military legacy, coalition, and first responder - can talk seamlessly among themselves and to more modern systems, including both military and commercial satellite systems.

* DARPA's neXt Generation (XG) Communications program has been developing technology to make ten times more spectrum available by taking advantage of spectrum that has been assigned but is not being used at a particular point in time. XG technology senses the spectrum environment in real time and then, in response, dynamically uses spectrum across frequency, space, and time - searching and then using spectrum that is not busy at the moment. XG is designed to resist jamming and not interfere with other users. XG was demonstrated to the House Armed Services Committee on January 29.

* Building on DARPA's XG and adaptive networking technologies, the Wireless Network after Next (WNaN) program is developing technology and architecture to enable an affordable and rapidly deployable communication system for the tactical edge. The low-cost, highly-capable radio developed by WNaN will provide the military with the capability to communicate with every Soldier and every device at all operational levels. WNaN networking technology will exploit high-volume, commercial components and manufacturing processes so that DoD can affordably and continuously evolve the capability over time. DARPA is working to put this affordable, tactical communications technology into the hands of the warfighter as soon as possible.

* Looking to bridge strategic and tactical networks with high-speed, high-capacity communications network, the Department's strategic, high-speed fiber optic network, called the Global Information Grid (GIG), utilizes an integrated network whose data rate is hundreds to thousands of megabits per second. To reach the theater's deployed elements, data on the GIG must be converted into a wireless format for reliable transmission to the various elements within the theater.

* DARPA's Optical and Radio Frequency Combined Link Experiment (ORCLE) program demonstrated a means for relaying GIG information to operational assets at the edge - even if some high data-rate links are degraded by atmospheric or physical obstructions - by teaming high-speed free-space optical communications with high-reliability radio communications. Now, building on this DARPA is planning to design, build, and demonstrate a prototype tactical network connecting ground-based and airborne elements. The agency's goal is to create a high data rate backbone network via several airborne assets that nominally fly at 25,000 feet and are separated out to ranges of 200 kilometers, which provides GIG services to ground elements up to 50 kilometers away from any one node.

* All-optical technology will be essential for ultra-fast strategic networks in the future. A foundation for this will be integrating multiple functions onto a single chip for all-optical routers with highly scalable capacity and throughput. DARPA's Data in the Optical Domain-Network (DOD-N) program has demonstrated a monolithically integrated, compact time buffer with waveguide delays up to 100 nanoseconds. Temporarily storing high-speed data is a critical power-consuming bottleneck for electronic routers, and this first demonstration of an all-optical buffer is a significant step toward overcoming the storage limitations for future data routers.

* For several years DARPA has been developing a miniature atomic clock - measuring approximately one cubic centimeter - to supply the timing signal should the GPS signal be lost. The Chip-Scale Atomic Clock will let a network node, such as a Soldier using a Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS), maintain synchronous operation with the network for several days after loss of the GPS signal. The CSAC microsystem derives its timing stability by coupling a miniature laser, with associated electronic circuits, to an atomic transition in a reference gas. Recently DARPA demonstrated an innovative application of an alternative laser-atomic state interrogation scheme that allows more than an order-of-magnitude increase in the system's stability. This new scheme should enable an accuracy equivalent to the loss of less than a tenth of a second error in timing over 100 years of operation. DARPA currently has plans to insert a CSAC into a SINCGARS radio to demonstrate that it can provide a time signal if GPS is not available, Tether said.

* Computer worms that have never been seen before (zero-day worms) pose a specific threat to military networks because they have been shown to exploit thousands of computers using previously unknown network vulnerabilities in seconds. The Dynamic Quarantine of Computer-Based Worm Attacks program has been developing dynamic quarantine defenses for U.S. military networks against large-scale malicious code attacks, such as computer-based worms, by creating an integrated system that automatically detects and responds to worm-based attacks against military networks, provides advanced warning to other DoD enterprise networks, studies and determines the worm's propagation and epidemiology, and immunizes the network automatically from these worms. The final system will quickly quarantine zero-day worms to limit the number of machines affected, as well as restore the infected machines to an uncontaminated state in minutes, rather than hours and days, which is today's state of the art.

* The High Productivity Computing Systems (HPCS) program is the Federal Government's flagship program in supercomputing. HPCS is pursuing the research, development and demonstration of economically viable, high productivity supercomputing systems for national security and industrial users. Phase III of the High Productivity Computing Systems (HPCS) program, encompassing design, development, and prototype demonstration, has been underway for a little more than a year. The program will culminate in a prototype demonstration at the end of 2010.

* DARPA's "Slow Light" program is exploiting the quantum properties of materials to control the speed of light and slow it to a tiny fraction of its normal speed. Such tunable control will allow storing and processing of optical information. This past year, the program demonstrated that slow light materials can slow, stop, and store two-dimensional images. The ability to slow, store and switch entire images before they are projected onto film or electronic detectors could lead to intriguing methods of capturing images, and further opens the door to novel approaches for ultrahigh- speed image processing. One example of a material that exploits quantum effects is superconductors, which conduct electricity with no energy loss due to electrical resistance.

* The Optical Lattice Emulator (OLE) program will construct a scaled artificial material - an emulator - whose mathematical and physical behavior is governed by the same underlying quantum mechanics as the superconductors of interest. This emulator will use approximately 10 billion ultra-cold atoms held in a lattice formed by laser beams. Controlling the states of the atoms in the optical lattice will help DARPA understand properties directly related to the desired behaviors of real materials.

Tether said the need for DARPA's mission - to prevent the technological surprise of the United States and create it for its adversaries by keeping our military on the technological cutting edge - remains the agency's operating principal.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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