The U.S. Army could be streaming surveillance video images from unmanned planes to soldiers' cell phones in about two years, a senior Army official said on Tuesday.
The Army remains committed to the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) as the main means for disseminating video images to the battlefield, a big program that is still under development and should be fielded in 2014, said Tim Owings, deputy program manager for Army unmanned aerial systems.
But technology developments and rapid advances in encryption software mean smaller-scale, self-contained 4G networks could also be an option for allowing troops to see video images in about two years, Owings told reporters at the annual Association of the U.S. Army conference.
A number of companies, including Textron, Raytheon, L-3 Communications Holdings and Sierra Nevada, are already working on secure 4G network systems that would enable video streaming to smart phones, he said.
Contracts would likely be smaller, but many defense companies are trying to develop less-expensive weapons that help the Pentagon save money and become more efficient.
"We're probably going to look at that. We'd be somewhat short-sighted not to," Owings said about streaming to smart phones, although he noted that the Army does not have a formal requirement for such a system.
'Pretty darn secure'
Owings said new encryption advances mean that such systems would allow "pretty darn secure" transmission of data in a very limited area, and they would be fairly inexpensive since they could be used with commercially available smart phones.
He said such smaller networks could complement the larger system needed to provide communications to the entire battlefield, and the companies are already working to get the high level of encryption certification needed.
He said there could be moves to test such systems as part of a larger test of the Army's various unmanned aerial systems and networks that is planned for September 2011.
Army equipment often requires extensive training for troops, but most recruits are already familiar with so-called smart phones, cell phones that can receive video images and photographs, which could reduce training costs, Owings said.
Fred Strader, chief executive officer of Textron unit Textron Systems, said such inexpensive solutions are particularly important given growing pressure on U.S. defense budgets and the Pentagon's drive to "do more without more."
He said the possibility of sending video images to cell phones has also been aided by advances that allow Textron's unmanned aerial plane, the Shadow, to stay in the air longer.
Mark Norris, the Lockheed Martin executive who heads the airborne, maritime and fixed (AMF) portion of the software-based Joint Tactical Radio System, said such smaller networks would be unlikely to adversely affect the larger system.
Lockheed announced on Monday that it had begun integrating the new software-based radio with the AH-64D Longbow Apache helicopter, a key step as the company prepares to deliver the first development version to the U.S. military in January.