By KRIS OSBORN - Warrior Maven
Since the days of the Gulf War debut of a host of new
precision weaponry and communications technology, the US military has increasing
developed GPS-dependent drones, satellites, force tracking systems and a wide
range of weapons.
While such things, such as Air Force Joint Direct Attack
Munitions for the Air Force, or the Army’s GPS-enabled Blue Force Tracking succeeded
in ushering in a new generation of advanced combat operations – in more recent
years potential adversaries have become adept at closing the technical gap with
the US. As part of this, the margin of US military technological superiority is
challenged, matched and, in some cases, outdone.
Advanced jamming techniques, electronic warfare and sophisticated
cyberattacks have radically altered the combat equation – making GPS signals
vulnerable to enemy disruption.
Accordingly, there is a broad consensus among military
developers and industry innovators that far too many necessary combat
technologies are reliant upon GPS systems. Weapons targeting, ship navigation
and even small handheld solider force-tracking systems all rely upon GPS signals
As a result there is increased focus within the military
community on combat technologies that can provide what the military calls
positioning, navigation and timing (PNT) for a wide range of systems.
The Air Force Research
Laboratory (AFRL) is working with industry to test and refine an emerging radio
frequency force-tracking technology able to identify ground forces’ location
without needing to rely upon GPS.
The technology utilizes a ground operated handheld device
which uses an algorithm to aggregate signals of opportunity from various radio
frequencies, said Mark Smearcheck, AFRL electronics engineer, in a written
statement several months ago.
“By receiving and processing various radio frequency
sources not designed for navigation purposes, the new system connects to a
smartphone and is designed to pinpoint a user’s location without relying on
GPS,” Smearcheck said.
The concept, a combined effort between the AFRL and
Virginia based Echo Ridge, is to identify and develop position, navigation and
timing technologies able to operate in a GPS-denied environment wherein
commonly relied upon GPS signals are jammed, attacked or compromised.
In particular, China is known to be testing high tech
ASAT, or anti-satellite, weapons intended to knock out or destroy enemy GPS
As a result of this and other threats, the Air Force has
been vigorously pursuing resilient, cyber hardened, combat capable
communications technology to sustain combat operations and preserve force
networking without GPS.
The device connects to a smartphone running the Android
Tactical Assault Kit, a device typically carried by Air Force ground operators to
display the navigation solution on a map.
With the process developed by Echo Ridge, the errors do
not accumulate over time, as they might with a traditional dead reckoning
approach, so a valid position can be produced indefinitely, officials
“Multiple signal sources are used simultaneously, which
provides redundancy and increased immunity to adversarial attack,” an Air Force
“We’re measuring signals that have known or discovered
geographical locations,” said John Carlson, chief technical officer at Echo
Ridge. “Because we’re able to precisely measure those signals, we can
accurately estimate position without error growth over time or distance
Several months ago Echo Ridge and the AFRL Sensors Directorate completed a field test and
demonstration of the technology at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.
Developers are now working on improving ruggedness for
the device to expand the mission scope of its potential combat uses.
Industry developers are
also working with the Army to develop navigation technologies able to function
in a GPS-denied environment – combat scenarios where satellite signals are
compromised or unable to function due to enemy activity or technical
One promising PNT technology under development is an
Orolia-developed device called Versa PNT.
“You may not be aware of how susceptible GPS signals are
to jamming or spoofing. The whole issue of interference, detection and
mitigation is the focus of our technology,” said Mark Cianciolo, regional vice
president for the Americas, Orolia.
The technology comes in a ruggedized box designed to
mount on vehicles, drones and other mobile platforms that network combat
forces. The device uses encrypted RF signals to both detect and mitigate
potential jamming or interference – all while providing key navigation and
timing systems for mounted and dismounted units. The Army’s mobile Blue-Force
Tracker, for example, is a GPS-reliant system, which provides friendly and
enemy force-tracking technology
Orolia is currently working on a prototype Versa for
dismounted soldiers, Cianciolo said.
It functions like a Wave Relay (Persistent Systems
technology) network with each device able to both transmit and function as a
router or node. It uses an iridium receiver and inertial measurement technology
to provide guidance, navigation and timing, Cianciolo said. The receiver is a
small antenna, which receives RF frequencies. This kind of Wave Relay
networking is also being successfully developed by the Army for subterranean
combat, allowing soldiers to conduct combat operations underground.
“When you look at our solution in an environment where
the timing is jammed, we’ve built in several redundant critical timing
solutions,” he added. “Our new Versa product is the only fully integrated
flexible platform of its kind that delivers comprehensive PNT solutions. The
signal is fully encrypted.”
The Versa PNT system is entirely consistent with existing
Army terrestrial, ad hoc software programmable radio networks designed to relay
combat-relevant voice, data and video technology across a force in real-time.
These networks, currently used by Army soldiers to
connect the handheld Rifleman Radio, operate in an environment without a fixed
infrastructure such as a cell tower or satellite network.
Rifleman Radio, used by Army Rangers in Afghanistan in
recent years, uses the high-bandwidth Soldier Radio Waveform to transmit info
across the force. A software programmable network is based upon the premise
that each node or radio on the system functions as a router as well as
something which transmits.
Versa PNT is also designed in a small, four-and-a-half
inch form factor to ultimately enable use with dismounted soldiers as well as vehicles, drones or other platforms.
- Air Force Military Deputy, Acquisition & Deputy Army PEO, Missiles & Space