Listen in: Wireless developments for Air Force may influence industrial applications

Will current research on wireless communication for fighter aircraft form the basis for tomorrow's wireless instrumentation?

By Control Engineering Staff May 7, 2008

If you think industrial wireless networking is tough, imagine if you had to design a protocol to tie together a group of Air Force fighters or UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles) in battlefield conditions. Current research to do just that may find its way into the next generation of industrial wireless instrumentation.

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory of Rome, N.Y., has awarded Spectracom and its academic partner, Rochester Institute of Technology (RIT), a contract to continue research of a wireless network routing protocol to support war fighter communications for the future of military airborne networks. The contract, worth nearly $300,000, augments previous USAF-sponsored work started in 2006 and, aligns with Spectracom’s strategic initiative to serve aerospace and defense markets with high reliability network solutions for synchronizing critical operations with an expanding technology portfolio.

The Air Force contract builds on the work of a team that includes Nirmala Shenoy, Ph.D., director of RIT’s lab for wireless networking and security and the inventor of the Multi-Mesh Tree (MMT) routing protocol. Dr. Shenoy said, “MMT offers a high degree of network efficiency through its scalability and use of information across traditional network protocol layers in a compact manner. We will enhance the MMT functions and its performance to meet the goals of the Air Force by introducing cognitive self-learning behavior in the protocol.” ( Listen in: Click here to hear a 5 minute interview with Dr. Shenoy .)

The contract supports the Department of Defense’s effort to deploy an IP-based network to interconnect mobile airborne platforms, and ultimately, to the military’s Global Information Grid. However, the difficulties of networking in the airborne environment pose extreme challenges. John Matyjas, Ph.D. of the Air Force Research Lab said, “Our goal is to achieve fast, efficient, and secure routing that performs under highly dynamic and hostile conditions of the battlespace. We are interested in approaches to apply cognitive techniques to further improve the performance of routing protocols.”

So how does a military communication platform make the jump to a chemical plant, and why?

The MMT protocol is difficult to describe briefly, but involves communication that is meshed in such a way that nodes can move around in the network and never lose communication. While industrial sensors don’t move around like aircraft, changing obstructions within a plant can have the same effect. The meshing process is deeper and more complete than industrial multi-hop networks.

“Our first project was with the department of defense last year, and that was to connect UAVs and we got some fantastic results,” says Shenoy. “We had a 100% success rate, with 100 nodes communicating with specific cluster heads and they were sending 1 Mb files. We didn’t lose a single packet. We compared it with OLSR (optimized link state routing), one of the other proactive linking protocols which is being used in the market today, and when we compared our overhead, the control messages to maintain connectivity, ours was 0.23% whereas OLSR was 45%. What that means is that I’m not eating into the little bit of bandwidth that I can use for data, because we did not do any flooding. That’s why we got these great results and why we got the AFRL contract.”

Shenoy has examined some of the existing industrial standards, including 802.11g, 802.11s, 802.15.4 (ZigBee) and WiMax for industry control as per ISA-SP100,never you address a solution you have to start from the network architecture, and then you say, ‘Does this architecture address the requirements for reliability, robustness, and so forth that is required for the application?’ That’s exactly what we tried to do. We look at it from a research perspective. We asked, ‘What architecture is robust and reliable?’”

Given that this project started from a clean sheet of paper, Shenoy and her team did not have to work around some of the commercial realities of industrial products. They were free to reinvent the wireless networking wheel, so to speak, to squeeze out the next higher level of reliability required in the military application. In this case, once the new platform is proven for the Air Force, she hopes it will be picked up by the wireless vendor community. That could take some time and will depend on moving to an actual prototyping phase. Shenoy notes, “We have it all in simulation, using a tool called OPNET , which is used by networking vendors and recognized by the Department of Defense and National Science Foundation. That is the tool we’ve used to simulate all this. This is a study, and all we have at this time is a lot of simulation results.”

What’s the next step? If the protocol is prototyped and proven, vendors will have to examine and determine if it offers meaningful increases in performance that customers will embrace. Those are pretty big “ifs” and there is much ground yet to cover, but we should always be looking ahead to the next level of technology.

—Peter Welander, process industries editor, ,
Process & Advanced Control Monthly
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