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Wifi on the Fly: Drones to Deliver Mobile Hotspots

by Bryant Jordan on May 5, 2014

RQ-7B ShadowThe military may soon be deploying air-mobile hotspots so that troops operating in remote locations can communicate with support units.

The Defense Advance Research Projects Agency, or DARAPA, said Phase 2 of the program began in March with teams integrating the developing technology into pods that will be mounted onto RQ-7 Shadow UAVs and mobile ground vehicles.

The Shadow, which weighs from 187 pounds to 375 pounds, depending on mission payload, is used for surveillance and reconnaissance by Army and Marine Corps units.

“The successes—and the novel networking approaches needed to maintain these high-capacity links—are key to providing forward deployed units with the same high-capacity connectivity we all enjoy over our 4G cell-phone networks,” DARPA Program Manager Dick Ridgway said in a statement.

The plan is to provide tactical units operating remotely with 1 gigabyte-per-second, or Gb/s, of reliable communications backbone.

For the program DARPA developed steerable millimeter-wave antennas that quickly pick up, track and establish communications links between moving air and ground vehicles, low-noise amplifiers that boost communication signals while minimizing noise and more efficient millimeter-wave amplification necessary for long-range operation.

The agency also developed new approaches for overcoming network and connectivity problems related to signal blockages stemming from terrain.

The Mobile Hotspot technology has been packaged in a so-called L-SWAP – for Low-Size, Weight, and Power – pod, which can be made compatible not only with ground vehicles, but also the RQ-7 Shadow unmanned aerial vehicle. According to the DARPA statement, the pods are no wider than 8 inches, weight less than 20 pounds each and consume less than 150 watts of power.

Next up will be a ground demonstration using at least four of the pods mounted to Shadows, two to ground vehicles and one to a fixed location on the ground, according to DARPA.

For Phase 3 the Mobile Hotspot systems will be field tested using multiple Shadow UAVs and mobile ground vehicle.

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