That Drone Is a Wi-Fi Hotspot
No cell phone, no problem—this robot will relay your signal
For most of us, being stuck in an area without cell phone coverage means we might not be able to order a pizza. But for U.S. troops in some remote Afghan valley, communications can be the difference between life and death.
No radio means no air support, no supplies, no reinforcements.
Hence the Pentagon’s Mobile Hotspots program, which aims to transform small drones into flying wireless hubs. The Defense Advanced Research Project Agency—the military’s cutting-edge technology lab—is aiming for a data capacity of one gigabyte per second.
And why not? Civilian drones have already proved that the airborne wi-fi concept can work. And the military has plenty of spare Unmanned Aerial Vehicles lying around, many of which can stay in the air for hours.
The trick, of course, is to fit the wireless equipment on the drone. DARPA researchers say they have developed small antennas operating on the millimeter wave band—that’s extremely high frequency—as well as special amplifiers that can boost the signal while generating just half as much noise as regular amplifiers.
The researchers have invented small, lightweight pod to carry all the gear. It’s scaled to fit on an RQ-7 Shadow drone, which is only 11 feet long and weighs 185 pounds—not huge. The pod is fewer than eight inches wide and weighs less than 20 pounds.
A Shadow hauling one of the wi-fi pods could stay in the air for up to nine hours, helping an American patrol in a radio dead zone to stay in constant communication with other forces.
DARPA’s next step is to actually install the first wi-fi pods on the Shadows … and then field testing.
Mobile Hotspots sounds like a winning idea. One can imagine airborne wi-fi hubs following infantry or vehicle patrols as they enter remote areas.
For their sake, let’s hope the weather isn’t so bad that the drones can’t fly. Or that whatever is interfering with a unit’s radio communications doesn’t also interfere with ground controllers’ ability to command the robots.