Wifi on the Fly: Drones to Deliver Mobile Hotspots

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.

About the Author

Bryant Jordan
Bryant Jordan is a reporter for Military.com. He can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @BryantJordan.
  • Blake

    DARPA should make their own commercial like Verizon.

    you know. where they have dots all over a map that shows their 4G coverage.

  • ken

    Cool. Access to porn no matter where our guys are! ;-)

  • Larry

    It’s DARPA.

    Define “Soon”.

  • hibeam

    Google drones will be delivering groceries within a few years if the government can get their act together and get the hell out of the way. Think of the energy savings. We don’t need to use 3000 pound SUVs to pick up a six back of beer and a bag of chips.

  • jake

    First of all why this system would cause more problems than it fixes… This is because of hardware; if the drone malfunctioned, got shot down or attacked, the equipment on board would fall into enemy hands and communications would be breached in that area… If salvagable then it could be set up or reused by the enemy… Satellites are the more secure effective method.

    • guest

      I don’t know what country you’re from but Wifi isn’t exactly cutting edge technology that would change the course of war if the enemy got there hands on it!

    • Paragrouper

      “Satellites are the more secure effective method”

      Umm, no.

    • ajspades

      In any conflict there is a risk of enemies or others obtaining our hardware/software/liveware. And like any risk, we weigh the risks against the benefits; in this case, the benefits outweigh the risks.

    • tmb2

      Why would my wifi antenna be flying above the enemy and not friendly troops?

      If a wifi UAV were shot down it’ll probably be a safe bet the comms wouldn’t survive the fall and the COMSEC would be cancelled anyways.

      Communications via satellite is VERY expensive and would have very low bandwidth compared to a wifi antenna.

    • blight_

      Mesh networking is more likely. Each vehicle will be a node to transmit and receive, along with other items deployed to propagate the network, such as UAVs.

      For positioning, Receivers GPS-guided to touchdown at day zero with reasonably accurate fixes would be used as baseline references for when the GPS constellation is destroyed, at least in the local area. Presumably a means of passive triangulation would also exploit enemy cell phone, radio, TV towers and location triangulation for increased position fix.

  • hibeam

    The government tried to put cameras on poles along the Southern border 10 years ago. Cameras on poles. They could not pull it off. Spent a couple hundred million and then gave up. Pretty sure it was the poles that stumped them. Drones are very useful. The government just needs to get the hell out of the way and it will happen.

  • Phantom4597

    Sure have come a long with with communications for troops in contact since the fall of 1965. Our 13th Signal Battalion, 1st Cav Div hung FM antennas out the back of caribous and set up re-trans capabilities that were brand new for its time. Still glad we had innovators then, and it sounds like we still attract smart guys and gals willing to continue making positive changes. In the final analysis, the soldiers in contact are what its about.

  • luiza

    Could this be used to track cell phone pings in areas that does not have cell coverage? If it could, may be SAR agencies should have these! People get lost and sometimes die because they cannot be found!