Next-generation communications technology to transform the standard military radio into a multi-faceted device is being developed to provide tomorrow's combat troops with a far greater chance of survival.

Researchers at the US Department of Energy's (DoE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory's Cognitive Radio Programme are integrating sensors and computational intelligence capabilities to turn software-defined radios (SDRs) into far more powerful devices able to avoid jamming, provide location via GPS and warn of chemical attacks.

The programme will look to embed sensors, cameras and microphones, giving the soldier total awareness of his surroundings, including chemical, biological or radiological hazards.

Programme director Mark Buckner and his team have developed reconfigurable digital and analogue radio frequency circuits, which could periodically and automatically change the bandwidth and other parameters that make the signal difficult, or impossible, to jam.

The team also designed software that reprogrammes the radio's circuits, enabling the device to switch between different functions. This means the radio could act as a GPS device, satellite phone or secure first-responder radio. And if the enemy attempted to jam the system, a new set of parameters to switch radios to different modes could be sent out quickly.

'The radio can mimic almost all communications, so it can resist jamming or interception, as well as the dedicated radios that already do that,' said the programme's deputy director Michael Moore. 'The added value here is that you are not limited to the capabilities of one dedicated-hardware radio at a time, but can pick the best communication link for the current situation.'

In terms of deployment, Moore said: 'The basic technology applies to command centres, base stations and mobile units. However, our focus is weighted specifically towards people in the field. Other entities are more focused on base station and command centre applications.'

He said that the project should be viewed more as ongoing rather than a one-off, with various spin-outs emerging as the technology is developed and tested.

'In the first year, if the funding is there we will deliver some leading edge SDR,' he said. 'Following that we will begin to add sensors — which provide the intelligence — in two to three years.

'Some of our dreams, such as the biohazard warnings, health sensor, voice recognition and interpretation are between three and five years away. It is a long list of attributes to include within that time.

'One thing you can be sure of, though, is that for funding the programme is at the mercy of the DoE, Defence Department and the Department of Homeland Security, so that will affect our direction.'

Funding may be one headache, but according to Buckner another more pressing issue is finding an adequate power source for a device that has such a range of functions.

'The real challenges are in powering the elements, enabling the device to cover a large range of frequencies and capabilities that we want to support,' he said. Moore agreed. 'Powering something this small and complex, with super wideband is the big challenge,' he said.

However, Buckner said his team had not agreed on one particular source, with fuel cells and hybrid power both under consideration. Currently the cognitive radio platform is the size of a box of tissues and various sensors and jamming technology has undergone in-house testing.

In another laboratory, ORNL researchers are developing technologies that will help soldiers navigate around a battlefield. Using the laboratory's Triply Redundant Integrated Navigation and Asset Visibility (TRI-NAV) system, troops can determine their precise location — regardless of terrain, buildings, foliage or attempts to jam GPS signals.

Underpinning this technology is a combination of highly-advanced GPS, an inertial navigation unit and ORNL's newly-developed Theatre Positioning System (TPS).

Not only does the system feature a novel spread-spectrum radio frequency scheme for the TPS signals — making it difficult to jam TRI-NAV — but it also features precision timing, ensuring all three systems work together to provide instant and highly-accurate location information, which is critical to soldiers in combat.

Researchers expect the final unit to be no bigger than a mobile phone and accurate to within one metre.