Portable 3G basestation could benefit soldiers in Afghanistan

British soldiers in Afghanistan could one day relay video footage of a combat zone to their colleagues using a portable mobile phone network.

Bath-based company SEA, working on a Ministry of Defence research project, has developed a handheld 3G basestation that creates a private mobile network, built using only commercial off-the-shelf technology in order to keep costs to a minimum.

The technology could allow soldiers to view video footage taken from several vantage points — including from unmanned aerial vehicles — to get a better understanding of a scenario or to allow officers to better plan and manage missions.

It could also provide a wireless network for handheld devices and systems within a military vehicle that is more secure than traditional Wi-Fi and harder for enemies to jam with radio interference.

In addition, police or other organisations working in a disaster zone, accident or terrorist attack could use the basestation to set up a temporary communications network.

‘What we’ve done is taken the whole of what might be an Orange or Vodafone network — the big masts, the back office, everything — and put it in a box,’ said SEA managing director Steve Hill.

‘The advantages that it gives are, firstly, that it’s a lot smaller so you can move it around and, secondly, security. We control who goes on there. You’d be able to detect that the network exists but you wouldn’t be able to connect to it.’

SEA’s latest device weighs around 2kg, including a separate battery pack, and can connect four devices within a radius of 1km. In addition, it can provide download speeds of 7.2Mbps. By the end of 2011, the company expects to have increased this to 16 users, 2.5km and 14.4Mbps.

Any 3G-enabled device can access the portable network once it has a specialised SIM card. The basestation can connect to the internet via a satellite phone or link to another unit to create a wider network.

If the MOD decides to make use of the technology, basestations could be made available by 2012.

Other companies are developing similar technology. For example, Roke Manor Research recently launched a larger, shoebox-sized basestation with a much higher range of 40km that supports 24 users.

But SEA created its device from commercially available components without having to re-engineer them. Part of the challenge was to combine technology that provided both high data-transfer rates and practical ranges in a suitably small device.

‘Using off-the-shelf technology means we can keep the price down because all the billions of dollars of research is being done by the big mobile phone companies and we are tracking them very closely,’ said programme manager Philip Macey.

The company is now researching how people are likely to use the system so it can develop its specific requirements and find a way for devices to use multiple video streams without overloading the user.

The US military is pursuing similar research under a programme to equip soldiers with mobile computers known as Nett Warrior, with which the UK has set up a limited information exchange.