Wi-Fi Goes to War

By Gerry Blackwell

November 30, 2006

A new technology incubator will investigate the use of wireless in the battlefield.

Wi-Fi, the war on terrorism and federal funding: it’s a killer combination. Two hot buttons to open the big government cash register in D.C.

When the state of North Carolina went looking for federal funding to help launch its new Defense and Security Technology Accelerator (DSTA), a business incubator in Fayetteville, it was no coincidence that it led with an intriguing project to develop a Wi-Fi-based portable multimedia battlefield system – despite the fact that the project hadn’t even been clearly defined by the military yet.

It’s just one more indicator that Wi-Fi – or “wireless fidelity,” as DSTA general manager Scott Perry invariably refers to it with the military man’s insistence on precision and formality (despite the term having no real meaning) – still equals cutting edge in a lot of minds. What better hot button to push with the federal nabobs?

With nudging from local Congressman Robin Hayes (R-NC), the nabobs came through with $1.08 million to fund a Wi-Fi lab and testbed at the DSTA’s newly established 15,000-square-foot facility.

We’re not suggesting this is a boondoggle. United States Special Operations Command, headquartered at MacDill Air Force Base near Tampa, Florida, and responsible for coordinating efforts of the different service branches in the international war on terrorism, has apparently expressed interest in such a system. It just hasn’t issued a work order or set out precisely what it wants.

It’s understandable then that Perry is uncomfortable talking about the proposed system, how it might be used by the military or what the DSTA’s role would be in developing it. On the other hand, he says, he has “Special Operations experience” and also worked for The Sytex Group Inc., a military technology supplier recently acquired by Lockheed Martin Corp.

This much is clear: portable -- and in some cases, mobile -- Wi-Fi network segments could be deployed in the field with the capability of transmitting digital video and still images – as well as text and other data – from one unit to another and back to headquarters. Senior officers behind the lines or nearby in the field could see exactly what soldiers on the ground are seeing, and confirm the identity of targets, for example.

“It allows ground forces to share critical information about the location of buildings, say, or hostages during tactical operations,” Perry says of the proposed system.

He implies that the project will not involve developing new technology, only testing and integrating off-the-shelf products. This will be done in the 510-square-foot Wi-Fi lab to be built and outfitted in the new DSTA facility. But as Perry says, understating slightly, “There’s a little bit left that needs to be accomplished.”  

The DSTA facility ribbon cutting was scheduled for November 1. The wheels of the government gods grind slowly it seems. The DSTA was first conceived in 2004 and received initial funding (of $2 million) from the state government in August 2005. The time since then has been taken up with establishing basic business infrastructure, finding a facility, negotiating a lease, and so on.

The organization was conceived as a new kind of incubator. Rather than fostering entrepreneurs with promising business plans and not much else, as most regional incubators do, the DSTA is looking to recruit somewhat more established companies that already have prototype products. It will offer 12 to 15 of them space in the facility and access to four labs, including the Wi-Fi lab.

At the time of writing, Perry and his advisory committee had already solicited online proposals from candidates, reviewed some of them and even made some selections, but had not yet notified successful applicants. He expected the first companies to move in around the middle of November.

It’s not quite clear how the overall philosophy and practice of the incubator (recruiting young companies with new prototype technology) jibes with the likely requirements of the Wi-Fi project (testing and integration of existing technology). Will the DSTA recruit young Wi-Fi companies with technology that might be suitable for military use? Perry says the Wi-Fi project will not be “out of the ordinary” for DSTA, but is otherwise vague.  

The new facility will have one key advantage. Fayetteville, a city of about 120,000 in the center of the state, was chosen because of its proximity to Fort Bragg. It’s the fourth largest military presence in the country, just a few miles out of town. The city is also within an hour and a half of other military facilities, including Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune  near Jacksonville, NC, and Seymour Johnson Air Force Base near Goldsboro, NC.

“Being located so close to Fort Bragg will give soldiers a chance to interface with the folks in the lab,” Perry says.

He also plans to run an outreach program with a view to partnering with other research and development facilities and academic institutions, including the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and Research Triangle Foundation of North Carolina. “One of my responsibilities is to foster collaboration,” Perry says. Other organizations in the state already have Wi-Fi testing and research facilities, he points out.

Work done on the DSTA’s Wi-Fi project may have wider application. “Pretty much everything we’re looking at is multiple use – defense, other government agencies. A lot of military applications could also be used by the Department of Homeland Security, and even fire and police. Then when you start thinking about wireless fidelity, if you can provide a network that lets you share critical tactical information almost instantaneously – I’m sure some of that technology will make its way into the market for commercial use.”

Yes, but what exactly is it that the DSTA will deliver that will be any different than what umpteen different Wi-Fi companies out there already have? Only time will tell.

Originally published on .

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