At the recent Mobile Deployable Communications Conference in Amsterdam, the main themes were no surprise. The requirements of the defence and security community continue to be very much focused on contingency operations. As a result, adaptability, agility and scalability are the key requirements. In addition, ever tightening budgets across the board continue to bite, but there is still an extant requirement for bandwidth and interoperability.
However, one other constant theme that struck a chord with me was the necessity to drive down the Size, Weight and Power (SWaP) requirements of mobile terminals, particularly those carried on the backs of soldiers. These three key elements of terminal design are often the critical deciding factors in the choice of terminal.
It was pointed out at the conference that the weight carried by soldiers on patrols hasn’t changed that much in the last 40 years, but what has changed significantly is the amount of specialist modern electronic equipment, such as PDAs, cameras, personal radios, blue force tracking kit and tactical and strategic satellite communications (Satcom). Satcom kit was once the preserve of headquarters elements; for use as strategic out of theatre backhauls. Now, these terminals are often extended to the section level for the patrols on the ground and for insertion into patrol bases, operating well away from regular logistic and operational support.
So what used to be carried instead of modern electronics? For every kilogram of electronic kit carried, the modern soldier is sacrificing carrying the key thing that dictates the length of time they can operate: ammunition (and to a certain extent, water). By reducing the SWaP characteristics of equipment, manufacturers are often simply increasing the amount of ammo that can be carried. In a firefight those extra rounds of ammunition can prove vital.
Another often overlooked factor in reducing SWaP is that the transport requirements become less, so more equipment can be fitted onto replenishment transport, be it ground or air. Replenishment runs are often the weak element of a force. They are easily targeted, particularly by guerrilla tactics. If these replenishment runs can be less often or carry more, they become more effective and the risk to all those involved is reduced.
To a certain extent, the same goes for vehicle-based communications platforms. Design teams have to consider SWaP from the outset. The soon to be available integrated board level product CX700 from iDirect has been designed to make the best use of low power, have a small physical footprint and weigh the least it can when considering all the features that are packed into it. I often joke with the design team that all they need to do is invent two key technologies to solve the issue; a Tardis and an anti-gravity pack. If only life was so simple.
Tardis and anti-gravity pack notwithstanding, watch this space. iDirect will be making some exciting announcements taking SWaP to a whole new level with its next-generation board-level manpack soon.
There is more than one way to solve a problem and alongside manufacturers reducing SWaP characteristics, others are developing autonomous vehicles that can act as the ammunition mules of days gone by. See www.youtube.com/watch?v=NmwXy97CN8Q for a demonstration of such vehicles. In reality, as with most situations, a combination of technologies will be the best solution for the soldier on the ground.
So in summary, everything’s getting smaller, lighter and making more efficient use of available power, but to the soldier on the ground, it all means getting more bang for your buck. Literally.