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Military plans to use drones as flying Wi-Fi hotspots

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 10:38am
Jason Lomberg, Technical Editor

For civilians, a dearth of Wi-Fi is a minor inconvenience. First-world problems. But for our troops in the field, a lack of connectivity can kill you. No connection means no close-air support and no reinforcements. Hence the military’s push to turn drones into mobile Wi-Fi hotspots.

Facebook has already announced plans to bring the “Internet to everyone” using a fleet of drones — an ambitious project to say the least. But let’s face it — Wi-Fi access in a first-world nation like the United States is a luxury item. Not being able to download apps or surf the web at Wi-Fi speeds — or even access the web in general — is never a matter of life or death.

But troops on patrol in the mountainous terrain of Afghanistan need connectivity. Our superior technology gives us an edge over a seasoned foe which has seen war for decades. And we need to exploit that advantage.

As DARPA points out, “Missions in remote, forward operating locations often suffer from a lack of connectivity to tactical operation centers and access to valuable intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) data.”

Naturally, the infrastructure for delivering high-bandwidth communications in remote areas doesn’t exist.

So DARPA’s Mobile Hotspots program will use unmanned aerial vehicles as flying Wi-Fi hotspots and create reliable, mobile infrastructure for troops on patrol. RQ-7 Shadow drones will be equipped with small, lightweight pods — eight inches wide and less than 20 pounds — which can provide a 1 Gb/s capacity for up to nine hours.

Presumably, forward operating bases (FOBs) could send out a continuous stream of fresh drones for extended patrols (which don’t always last a neat nine hours).

The tech relies on an advanced low-noise amplifier (LNA) — allegedly the world’s lowest noise millimeter-wave LNA — and, according to DARPA, output power exceeding 1 watt and 20% power added efficiency (PAE) from a single gallium nitride (GaN) chip operating at E-Band frequencies (71 GHz to 86 GHz).

Left unsaid is how DARPA plans to deal with inclement weather (or sandstorms) or if this would affect connectivity, but the Mobile Hotspots program is still in the early stages.

DARPA has already commenced phases 1 and 2, and phase 3 — field testing — will start soon.

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