NATICK, Mass. -- When investigating new ways of transmitting and communicating information, sometimes it helps to see the light.
This is the idea behind a new technology being investigated by the Research, Development and Engineering Command Soldier Center's Expeditionary Maneuver Support Directorate, along with its industry partner, VLNComm of Charlottesville, Va.
"It's a wireless system but instead of using radio frequencies it uses infrared light," said Frank Murphy, an engineer on EMSD's System Development and Engineering Team. "It is called LiFi, or light fidelity. It has many advantages."
Murphy has been investigating ways to utilize the emerging commercially available technology in a tactical environment as the physical characteristics appear to solve many issues facing wired and wireless field command post network systems.
The technology will be used in expeditionary mission commands. EMSD has come up with a concept for using LiFi within any enclosed mission command platform. LiFi eliminates the problems associated with the time-consuming task of running data lines in tactical operation centers and command posts. Moreover, since the technology does not use radio waves, it cannot be detected outside the confines of the mission command platform.
"The technology uses light waves to transmit and receive data between the servers and the user's computer," said Melvin Jee, the leader of EMSD's Command Post Platforms Branch. "As light cannot pass through walls, the enemy cannot detect the signal."
Murphy's investigation into the technology was inspired in part by Douglas Tamilio, the director of RDECOM Soldier Center, sharing an article about LiFi with RDECOM Soldier Center leadership. Murphy's investigation was also inspired by the vision of Claudia Quigley, the director of EMSD, and the RDECOM Soldier Center's ongoing partnership with the 82nd Airborne. The RDECOM Soldier Center and the 82nd Airborne have worked together extensively to find out ways to best meet the needs of warfighters.
Murphy explained that Quigley and other members of the directorate were working with the 82nd Airborne during a field exercise. During the exercise, Murphy noticed that the setup of IT cabling was proving to be a time-consuming and difficult task.
"They had a hard time setting up their IT network, which isn't usually an NSRDEC area, but we felt that we could address the need," said Murphy. "Tactical speed is absolutely essential for command post setup. LiFi is potentially faster, easier to install and doesn't have the security and exposure issues of other technologies. LiFi is un-hackable and untraceable when used within the command post shelter."
"It's virtually impossible to find the wavelength the data is being transmitted on, so if LiFi is detected, it's hard to intercept the data stream," said Jee.
EMSD is working with industry partners. Murphy explained that the commercially available technology was modified to fit a tactical environment. The technology will affect how Soldiers communicate and, thus, carry out a mission.
"A command post of any size is an information processing center," said Murphy, "They take information from the field whether it comes in from a drone, Soldier/squad reports, other personnel in the area, satellite information, information from wheeled vehicles, or from behind the front lines -- all this information gets fed to the command post staff. They make a decision and then the information goes right back out. Lives depend on this communication."
"LiFi is part of NSRDEC's plan to provide a fully integrated platform with all of the necessary infrastructure in order for the warfighter to set up his command post," said Jee. "Just as a house is fully integrated with power, lights and network cabling -- allowing the homeowners to just concentrate on the furnishings -- NSRDEC plans to provide a fully functional house, allowing the warfighter and program managers to provide the "furniture.'"
"In a command post, everyone has a job to do and they have their information chain," said Murphy.
"All these Soldiers need network access. With this, you simply shine the light over their head. After you hook the transceiver into the USB port, the transceiver will detect the signal and you will be hooked up to the IT network of your command post. It's as simple as that. We also hope to have it integrated into the wiring harness for the lighting so we can just roll up the tent and pack it away during a move."
Murphy emphasized that the NSRDEC project is really a team effort and that several entities at the Natick Soldier Systems Center were important to the development of the technology. He also received "great guidance" from his branch chief, Melvin Jee, and from his team leader, Connie Miles-Patrick, System Development and Engineering Team, as well as the DREN team and people in the Natick Contracting Division.
He also credited the use of the Base Camp Integration Lab, or BCIL, which was created by and is expertly run by, Product Manager Force Sustainment Systems. A first-generation Li-Fi system prototype was recently set up at the BCIL and successfully demonstrated the capability to send and receive data using the BCIL's IT network.
"The people at the BCIL were incredible," said Murphy. "They gave us the perfect platform to showcase the tactical capabilities of this device. This project really showcases what Natick is all about. The Natick team dove in with both feet. Great things happen when people believe in each other and in an idea. We all want to help the Soldier."
Murphy believes that LiFi is truly the wave of the future.
"The demand for data inside the command post is only going to continue to increase," said Murphy, "So data quantity and quality need to improve to meet this demand. This technology can be hooked up permanently in rigid wall mission command platforms, but it can be used anywhere. We will be bringing world-class communications, security, speed and capability to the frontline Soldier. Information in the field is a weapon. This technology will help the warfighter make better decisions and be more effective and lethal in the field. This changes everything in the IT network system. It's a game changer."
The U.S. Army Soldier Center is part of the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command, which has the mission to provide innovative research, development and engineering to produce capabilities that provide decisive overmatch to the Army against the complexities of the current and future operating environments in support of the joint warfighter and the nation. RDECOM is a major subordinate command of the U.S. Army Materiel Command.