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Pentagon funds 'Wireless Network After Next'

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Famed tech-pioneer company BBN - which among other things gave the world the "@" symbol in email addresses - has been awarded Pentagon funding to develop the "Wireless Network after Next" (WNaN) for use by the digital grunt of tomorrow.

The firm says that the $11.3m in defence cash comes from the Air Force Research Laboratory and DARPA - the Pentagon's radical edge-bloodening bureau. For this, BBN will demonstrate a "hardened virtual network infrastructure" running on handheld data radios. The demo network will start with 20 nodes this summer and scale up to 370.

BBN have already carried out smaller-scale trials of their WNaN tech, and say that it's ideal for use in digital-footsoldier efforts like Land Warrior or the Ground Soldier Ensemble candidates. These efforts let every soldier see where he and his buddies are on a map, and also enemies, objectives etc. They might grow to offer other features like streaming video, medical telemetry and so on in future.

DARPA say that WNaN represents a change from the usual military comms philosophy of having a few long-ranging expensive nodes, which deal with jamming or tough conditions by being powerful. Rather, the idea here is to have lots of cheap, less powerful nodes and cope with problems by weight of numbers:

Previous practice has been to build high cost and hence sparsely deployed nodes, and to organize the network around these nodes. This program aims to shift the approach used to design military wireless networks from design for radio range to design for node density. Proposers should assume node densities associated with deployments in which each warfighter and each vehicle has a WNaN radio node.

BBN say that their kit is nice and cheap, as it uses off-the-shelf bits: DARPA require a mass-production cost of less than $500 per unit. The firm also says the tech is "disruption tolerant", able to stream video even when many routes are blocked by jamming, terrain features or whatnot. WNaN is also said to play nicely with other military RF systems.

The only question-marks remaining would seem to be those regarding the programme's name, which plainly can't remain appropriate forever. Presumably at some point this will have to change to something like Next Enhanced Radio Datanet (NERD) and then to Warfighter Augmentation Network Ground Equipment Radio (WANGER) etc. ®

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