How drones can be communication nodes in the sky
When army cadets at West Point train in the surrounding mountain valleys and field courses, they learn to wage war in what the military calls a “passively denied environment.” The term means that the natural landscape interferes with radio signals, making it difficult for soldiers in training to communicate as they might in an open field.
Although the military trains there and has decades of experience in warfare in urban and mountainous terrain, another possibility is to use new technologies to create a signal relay between soldiers in the field and commanders further afield. . To achieve this, the army is developing an “air level network”, or a system of flying machines that can serve as a signaling relay.
A “[Aerial Tier Network] allows us to send data up to an asset in the air level and then back down, allowing the signal to jump over obstacles to efficiently get more nodes and expand the communication area,” said Scott Newman, Project Manager within the Army Program Executive. Office Command Control Communications-Tactical.
In other words, having an aircraft available to relay signals means that soldiers fighting in a valley can share information with soldiers on the other side of the ridge, without worrying that the signal will be lost. As battlefields expand, encompassing villages, city districts, or large swaths of rugged terrain, staying in contact with friendly forces at a distance becomes more important.
[Related: The UK’s wee military recon drones will double as cartographers]
Losing communication can mean being isolated, ambushed, or simply not moving fast enough. Rather, maintaining a communication link can allow soldiers to outwit their enemies, spot weaknesses, share information about attacks, and maintain cohesion while fighting as part of a larger force.
During the 2021 Project Convergence Technology Demonstration, the military used drones to facilitate this communication over the hill, although the air level network can work with more than just drones. Provided the plane can receive and relay signals, the work could be done by circling planes, helicopters operating in the area, or even new planes being prepared under the Army’s Future Vertical Lift program.
In May, C4ISRNET reports, Greg Napoli of the Army Future Command Network Cross-Functional Team told an industry meeting that air level could mean everything from armed aircraft to aerostats, which are essentially tethered balloons with communication relays. Other options include large portable cell towers and drones.
Currently, this type of top-down communication is done through satellites, but satellites have limitations. While many communications networks aim for continuous and reliable global coverage, signals can be blocked by jammers and satellites could be vulnerable in the event of war if a country uses anti-satellite missiles or other space weapons to destroy them.
Instead, an aerial array can be brought to where the soldiers are and provides a communications link immediately above, with a link that can be dismantled and transported elsewhere as the fighting moves on. All of this is designed to improve the military’s ability to stay in contact and coordinate while away from friendly forces. This type of dispersed communication is called NLOS, for “Not Line of Sight”.
[Related: A next-gen tank will be revealed in October. Here’s what we know about it so far.]
Future developments to improve this type of networked communication will influence how the military develops its relay for airborne NLOS (RANGE) ground environments. Extending the distance over which a relay can operate, as the clumsy acronym RANGE suggests, allows soldiers to operate farther from each other while maintaining useful contact.
How an army talks to its constituents determines how it can fight. Modern warfare is sensor-rich, with cameras on drones and tanks, aircraft radars, thermal imaging in goggles worn by soldiers, and more, all contributing to a vast collection of information about field. Turning this information from sighting into action means analyzing and sharing it, leaving artillery a few miles behind to spot a target spotted by a drone piloted by scouts. The communication network between all these parties makes the whole operation sing, facilitating devastating assaults and clean retreats.
As the military develops new aircraft to support soldiers in the field, air networks link these aircraft to ground combat, making these relays crucial for army communication. Better communication between nearby forces means that when fighting takes place, reinforcements can be in place, allies can know where the danger lies, and the odds can be put in favor of the army. Firefights are chaotic moments, full of sound and danger as soldiers exchange fire and try to survive long enough to win.
With the Air Level Network, the military intends to make communication in difficult terrain as easy as it is on the plain.