By John Keller
Editor in Chief
We're hearing a lot these days about networked unattended sensors. These devices, placed unobtrusively on the battlefield, record all kinds of things: video; sounds; movements of the Earth that might indicate the presence of infantry or combat vehicles; the presence of chemical, biological, and nuclear agents; positions as measured by the Global Positioning System (GPS); and other variables. Then these sensors send their data to tactical networks that compile and compare the data, and extract useful, actionable information.
Once processed, information from these unattended sensors can be put on electronic maps that indicate the locations of friendly troops, enemy troops, concentrations of armored vehicles and artillery, and even where chemical agents might be a threat. These situation maps either can be pushed out to forces in the field, or made available on a tactical Internet for retrieval when necessary. Top commanders and front-line soldiers alike can have a common picture of the battlefield to help them keep troops alive and effective, and to take the fight to the enemy.
Think of how this kind of situational-awareness capability can cut through the so-called "fog of war," a phenomenon that since the beginning of time has tripped-up military forces with unpleasant surprises. That's the whole idea behind networked unattended sensors—to keep unpleasant surprises on the battlefield to a minimum.
Deploying unattended sensors effectively involves a host of issues, not the least of which are power management, lightweight batteries, antenna placement, and ruggedization to withstand the effects of shock, vibration, dust, dirt, and moisture for long periods—or at least for as long as these sensors are needed. Anti-tamper technology has to be a part of the solution for when these devices might fall into the hands of enemies. In addition, what happens to these sensors when they're no longer effective or needed? Must they be retrieved, destroyed, or somehow rendered inert?
Now think of a similar kind of unattended sensor, but one that isn't hidden in foliage or under a rock, but instead that is embedded unobtrusively in a soldier-carried radio, which almost everyone on the battlefield will have. This combat radio offers all the functionality that a soldier needs—voice communications with others in his unit, data communications to exchange maps and documents, and the ability to send and receive still images and video.
The kind of unattended sensor technology we're talking about would reside on that same radio, and work in the background without any intervention necessary from the user. It's a situational-awareness networked sensor that goes along for the ride, creating no additional workload for the user, but providing a rich new dimension of real-time information about the soldier's surroundings.
Now let's consider sensors in or around the radio that measure each soldier's vital signs, and automatically relay that data back to the tactical network. With a map overlay, commanders at all levels could see at a glance which solders are healthy and operational, which ones are wounded or under stress, and which ones are dead. This information helps not only to assess battle tactics, but also the need for medical evacuation.
Only the imagination limits the possibilities. Perhaps what's best about situational-awareness sensors embedded in infantry combat radios is the sensors move with the soldiers. Almost all the information they gather is relevant, with little need to place sensors into hibernation to save battery life.
This is the new frontier of military communications. Read more in the Special Report entitled, "SDR and cognitive radio: the new horizons of military communications."