Defence Science and Technology’s SMARTNet to improve Australian Army communications

Since the advent of digitisation of the tactical network, humans have found it quite difficult to manage the overwhelming amount of data. The army is no exception especially with the amount of decisions to be made.

Mr Gregg Judd and Mr Keith French, who are members of the Defence Science and Technology’s (DST) Systems Integration and Tactical Networking (SITN) team of Australia, have witnessed firsthand some of the issues that the Army is trying to cope with.

They have been working with the Army for many years when the idea came to them of the need to automate things. Their research into smarter networking systems arose from their involvement in the operational test and evaluation of the new Land 200 Battle Management Systems (BMSs).

According to the report released by DST, Semantically Managed Autonomous and Resilient Tactical Networking (SMARTNet), was born as a way to improve the functionality of the BMS.

Mr French explained that their aim was to ensure resilience in the information that is being communicated. It means that information transfers should be guaranteed given any network, by adding some software smarts thereby fulfilling the information management mantra of Defence: right information, right person, right time.

Dynamic tactical communication management is difficult because, as Mr Judd explained, communication infrastructure in the land battlespace environment is not fixed.

There are no base stations like a mobile phone network to rely on. It is fragile because all the links use combat net radios that drop out and are continually on the move.

Moreover, adversaries are also trying to jam the communications. Basically, it is not an environment that allows a person to send a lot of data because it will not get through in a timely fashion.

To solve this, the data should be distilled. The information with the highest priority should be sent first. Less important data can then get through eventually.

To be able to transform the data and to link into the radio hardware, the SMARTNet team has established a partnership with the US Army Research Labs (ARL) scientists.

Mr French explained that it is essential to understand the state of the network in the area to determine the amount of data being transmitted. The state of the network will continually change as the battle context changes. If too much data were sent at the wrong time, the network can seize up.

At the moment, the two main research thrusts are computational intelligence and assessing the state of the networks.

It is critical for SMARTNet to know if the person is in an assault phase and in contact with the enemy. The challenge lies in determining how SMARTNet will know the phase and how it should use that knowledge to best transform, prioritise and throttle the flow of information.

Mr Judd explained how difficult it is to assess the state of the network and understand the implications because it is hard to find out what the network is doing without clogging it up.

To address these challenges, the SMARTNet team has been working with colleagues at the University of Adelaide's Centre for Distributed and Intelligent Technologies, who are looking at the artificial intelligence side of things. The university's Centre for Defence Communication and Information Networking (CDCIN) has also joined.

Furthermore, the team is partnering with Consilium Technology, a small to medium sized company with experience in building and commercialising Artificial Intelligence-based systems.

The four-year strategy is to gradually build up the fidelity and capability of the SMARTNet middleware. Concepts will be verified and validated initially through a simple simulator, ramping up to more complex emulations and finally running field trials using real kit.

The ARL team will be helping the whole time. Their impressive tactical network emulators will be used to evaluate SMARTNet algorithms. Using SMARTNet over real radios will be the ultimate test. And for that, field experiments have been planned in the US in 2020 and in Australia in 2021.

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