FASTER, CHEAPER… MORE CONNECTED
Commercial uncrewed aerial vehicles (“UAVs”) and cellphones – drones and phones – create new possibilities for multiplying the tactical capabilities of ground forces. Both technologies have found applications in recent conflicts. Cellphones have been a key tool for insurgents and terrorist organizations since they emerged. More recently, commercial drones have appeared in conflicts in Crimea, Afghanistan and across Africa. However, the combination of these low-cost, widely available technologies has developed during the current conflict in Ukraine, and it is changing the way large-scale ground forces operate. Connecting drones and phones creates a new kind of distributed, low-cost combat power.
When information can move easily from a low-flying commercial drone to an operator connected by phone or radio to tactical networks, them speed and lethality of ground combat increases. Commanders who can make these connections are changing the way large forces operate. The impact of connecting drones and phones is obvious to observers of the Ukraine conflict. One senior Russian commander stated in blunt terms: “Commercial UAVs have revolutionized reconnaissance and artillery weapons fire, including target acquisition and adjustment, and become a true symbol of modern warfare.” Russian General Yury Baluyevsky.
But the full military advantages of commercial UAVs and cellphones only appear when these technologies are integrated into a system for reconnaissance and artillery fire support. Without the right integration, soldiers are unable to move data between phones, drones, and commanders. They make mistakes and lose time when data is manually transcribed, coordinates are incorrectly recorded, or reports are garbled. What can developers do to ensure that commanders gain the full advantages of emerging commercial technologies? The answer lies in solving the physical, digital and security challenges of connecting these commercial technologies. To win with drones and phones, developers must focus on the connectivity challenge.
MOVING POWER AND DATA BETWEEN DRONES AND PHONES
Commercial technology is inexpensive and easy to use. Connecting these technologies to allow easy, reliable movement of data, signals and power is not easy, because these technologies are usually designed as standalone products. Efficient connections require a systems approach to address physical, digital and security-related requirements.
Making the Physical Connection: Keep It Open and Commercial
Commercial drone technology and cellphones are available from many vendors across a broad global supply chain. Tactical modernization approaches that focus on developing a closed ecosystem of sensor and communications technologies will miss the opportunity to incorporate hardware from a full range of potential providers. This approach makes forces more vulnerable by restricting the availability of commercial technology. An open-systems approach such as those provided by USB and HDMI standards used for commercial technology can exploit common physical connections between devices. Soldiers should be able to make physical connections between the hardware components of their equipment to allow easy movement of power, data, and signals. Physical connections are likely to be more widely acceptable than wireless or Bluetooth-powered connections because of requirements to minimize radiated energy.
In practice, this is likely to mean that small, inexpensive hubs with the ability to connect phones, batteries, cameras, drone controllers, tactical radios and other digital equipment will convey significant advantages. Soldiers should be able to quickly configure a “mission set” with whatever digital technology is at hand, and to switch devices instantly with simple commercial connectors and cables. This “open and commercial” approach also allows soldiers to power their digital equipment with commercial power banks and share power among devices, providing flexibility and extending mission times.
It’s All About the Software
Soldier-worn commercial devices can be physically connected, either directly or through hubs, but they must communicate with each other to create tactical advantages. A drone controller with GPS may be able to locate a target, but unless the target data can be passed to a battle management system and sent via phone or radio, the target coordinates must be manually transcribed and transmitted. This can lead to transcription or transmission errors and lost time. Battle management software such as the US ATAK or Ukrainian GIS ARTA fire direction platform can provide a common base for integrating commercial devices through USB or other physical connections. Different devices require individual software utilities to make the data connection to ATAK/ARTA or other systems.
Software integration of commercial devices may prove to be the most challenging barrier to effective use of drone-generated data. Manual workarounds are used in today’s operations, but a real “plug and play” approach for processing and transmitting data from hardware created by multiple vendors would provide an advantage for operators and commanders. Such an approach would also simplify logistics in forward areas, by allowing soldiers to integrate whatever device or power supply is at hand.
No Edge Storage and No Easy Fix
Connecting commercial devices to military networks in a tactical environment is a real headache for security professionals because of the risks of infiltration, data spills or other security breaches. One challenge that has not emerged in Ukraine is large-scale cyberattacks on tactical networks equipped with commercial technology. A recent study of cyber operations in Ukraine concluded that Russia has “struggled” to integrate cyber and conventional effects on the battlefield due to the resilience of Ukrainian cyber defense and Russian focus on strategic cyber operations.2 However, widespread use of commercial drone technology, phones, power banks and other peripherals is unlikely without reliable security.
An emerging approach is simply to avoid edge storage of tactical information – no map or mission data stored locally on phones or other soldier-worn devices. Encryption and other basic communications security procedures, combined with frequent movement by tactical units, may be an adequate solution in the short run.
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