The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) – the Pentagon’s experimental research and development arm that thinks up new ideas and then pushes them as far out on a limb as they can – is trying to come up with a new, relatively inexpensive networked radio system that can keep soldiers in austere environments connected. And according to one engineer working on the project, they’re pretty close to wrapping it up.
Called the Wireless Network after Next (WNaN), the idea is to take inexpensive, upgradable commercial off the shelf radio components, harden them for military use, and issue each soldier his own radio.
DARPA has tapped Raytheon’s BBN Technologies to work on the network and Cobham to work on the radios. Jeff Feinberg of Raytheon’s BBN Technologies explains that the goal of the program is to produce radios that cost about $500 each, and can be easily swapped out every few years as technologies improve. He compared it to how civilians treat their cell phones. “Your phone is just an access device,” he explains, “all the smarts are in the network itself, and they get you to throw your phone away every two years and get a new phone that can get more use out of the network. That’s really where this program is trying to head—to make that radio an access device and drive all the high level performance to the network so the Army doesn’t have to reinvent and reinvest in a lot of new hardware every year.” Essentially, the Army will buy the network once, while tossing the inexpensive radios out every few years for better models that can exploit more of the network.