Transforming the Defence Sector with mmWave: COTS vs Custom

The challenge of developing leading edge systems is growing dramatically as customers’ demands for high levels of performance – more specifically high throughput on a small size, low power, low weight (SWAP) product is rising. This is especially important in areas that have traditionally developed custom equipment to meet their own requirements such as perimeter security, public safety, and defence applications.

These systems have been developed for robustness, security and reliability of the equipment supply over many years, which previously has been seen as needing a custom solution. However, due to long lead times to meet these custom requirements, this has often meant that these markets have not been able to access leading edge technologies in an efficient and commercially viable time frame. This is increasingly important for today’s applications in the defence and safety sectors, such as 4K high-definition video networks, peer-to-peer communication and tactical communication networks.

The time it takes to develop custom technologies, often by a complex consortium of companies, means that the equipment can take a long time to reach maturity, is expensive to develop and deploy, and requirements will often have evolved by the time the systems ship.

One notable example of this process was the Bowman radio development for the UK Armed Forces. The project cost £2.4bn for 18,000 radios, and spanned 15 years of development, achieving a maximum data rate of 500kbit/s when it launched in 2004. It is expected to be in service until 2026, when this data rate will be insufficient to meet the increasing data demands from the defence sector.

With the growing use of HD and 4K/8K video systems, as well as large amounts of image and sensor data, future tactical communications will need to be able to support multiple data streams with rates of 15Mbit/s per 4K stream coupled with low SWAP, covert operation, and ease of integration with existing and emerging communication architecture.


The opportunity and the challenge

This challenge, and need to evolve the procurement framework, is being recognised by some developers with a shift to ‘Commercial Off the Shelf’ (COTS) equipment, while equally recognising that the security and defence sector have particular requirements for robustness. Moreover, there is a related trend away from the use of Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA) technology towards System on Chip (SoC) in order to minimise size, weight, and power of complex defence communications equipment.

The successor platform to Bowman, Morpheus, is now taking a more open approach known as Evolve to Open (EvO). This EvO approach will change the current procurement system into a vendor independent and open information architecture system for greater flexibility in the future evolution of the system and significantly faster delivery. A similar trend can be seen in the wider roll-out of 5G networks, spearheaded by the Open RAN (ORAN) Alliance. This initiative seeks to open up the interfaces between the various parts of the mobile networks in the radio access network (RAN). The benefit for both markets is that it opens 5G network deployment to new entrants and operators, enabling new partnerships, innovative products, and better service offerings to customers.

For complex and emerging technologies such as millimetre wave (mmWave) wireless, which holds out the promise of delivering gigabit grade performance combined with low SWAP and LPI (Low Probability of Interception), this move to open systems is both an opportunity and a challenge. The technology can deliver data rates up to multiple gigabit/s, with low latency and low power, but it can be a challenge to deliver all the different elements needed to create a reliable and robust network.

This could lead to a custom development, with new antenna systems, radio front ends at 60 to 70 GHz (or higher) and complex, high-speed baseband silicon all brought together in a system integration with testing in multiple harsh environments. This can take several years and £10M’s to develop to the high TRL levels required for Tactical Defence applications.

However, many of the critical technology elements are available today from commercial suppliers with the robustness and encryption that is needed for 5G security and defence applications. The skills to put all of this together in an effective signal chain, including an understanding of varying and challenging environments, is the golden thread that brings all of this together.


Combining COTS technology

Blu Wireless develops the baseband and software elements of mmWave systems, based on the IEEE .11ad and .11ay standards. Bringing together the antenna and radio specialists we can ensure the whole signal chain meets the power and data rate requirements of demanding defence and security applications. Our IEEE 5G Wireless equipment, operating in the unlicensed spectrum at 57-71 GHz, has low SWAP while delivering carrier-grade throughput and high performance, enabling robust and covert multi-gigabit edge computing communications for the tactical edge.

Combining all the different, complex elements of the system requires detailed understanding of the complete system, and this is often missing. There may be experts in the mmWave radio front end, the leading-edge antenna system, or the network software, but the system-level understanding experience to bring it all together is essential.

This open approach also requires vital expertise for testing the system in a wide range of real-world environments. These systems need to be portable and operate with gigabit links in a mesh network that operates over several kilometres to deliver high quality video reliable across a location.

Such systems have been tested and verified in numerous contrasting environments such as high-speed rail networks and high altitudes for pseudo-satellites (HAPS) to high-speed cars driving at over 200mph. This means that customers in the defence and security sector can deploy high quality wireless networks today that are built from already existing leading edge 5G technologies.

Blu Wireless provides systems that brings all these elements together, fully tested and proven in challenging real-world environments and capable of delivering the key requirements for public safety, perimeter security and defence applications. Get in touch with us today to find out how we can enable your applications.