|A U.S. Air Force combat rescue officer uses a radio to communicate with an HH-60 Pavehawk helicopter.|
Hoping to improve the way its planes communicate in hostile environments, the aerial branch of the U.S. Armed Forces is sharing $2.7 million with computer science researchers at the University at Buffalo who will spend the next four years developing software that can make wireless radios significantly smarter and more efficient. It’s called cognitive radio, and though the concept has been around for a while, there are some signs that it’s getting ready for prime time, and it could be used to boost wireless networks well beyond the Air Force. Microsoft has tinkered with cognitive radio, and some think that Google could use it as a way of improving its self-driving cars.
Using these techniques, Pados believes, his research team will be able to speed up wireless networking by tenfold.
Used inside Air Force planes, the tech could prevent enemy aircraft from jamming signals, and though that may seem far from the everyday world, it could also pay dividends for consumers. After all, the growing universe of extremely chatty mobile devices have a way of jamming our cellular and Wi-Fi networks. “We do not really utilize the concepts of space, time, and spectrum efficiently,” says Dimitris Pados, an electrical engineering professor at the University at Buffalo.
The idea behind cognitive radio is to build smarter, more flexible networking gear with bigger brains. Using these techniques, Pados believes, his research team will be able to speed up wireless networking by tenfold.In short, cognitive radios use software to figure out what’s going on with the network. Is there interference? Is there a better way to send messages? The radios can then adjust their power, frequency, even their network protocols — all on the fly — so that the computers bits and bytes cross the network more quickly that they do with today’s routers and wireless phones.
Take your Wi-Fi router. The way things work today, Wi-Fi routers use one of a handful of predetermined frequency ranges to communicate with smartphones, gadgets and laptops. If things didn’t work that way, your Wi-Fi signal could interfere with your digital TV, cellular phone signal, or AM radio, which all operate on different ranges. But cognitive radio — at least in theory — is smart enough to use some of these other ranges without causing interference. “We let every radio in the network have access to the whole available spectrum,” Pados says.
Some of the core ideas behind cognitive radio date back to the 1980s — when researchers would have to haul around their gear in the back of a truck. But the mobile revolution has shrunk down radio components to the point where the kind of equipment you’d need to assemble a cognitive radio router is about the size of a hardcover book.
Backed by funding from the Air Force, researchers are testing cognitive radios at the University of Buffalo. Photo: Courtesy of University at Buffalo/Douglas Levere
Back in 2005, when Alex Wyglinski first started researching cognitive radio, there were fewer than 100 researchers worldwide looking into it. That has changed. “Nowadays, this topic is the hottest topic in the wireless sector,” says Wyglinski, an engineering professor at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. Both DARPA — the research arm of the Department of Defense — and the National Science Foundation have sponsored research into cognitive radio, and a handful of startups are working to make it a reality.
But there’s a big problem. Cognitive radio simply isn’t in line with FCC regulations, which do not allow devices to jump from one section of spectrum to another. (WHO CARES!)
But there’s a big problem. Cognitive radio simply isn’t in line with FCC regulations, which do not allow devices to jump from one section of spectrum to another. Pados will get to test out his network in a special zone where the FCC’s rules don’t apply — at the Air Force’s Stockbridge Research Facility, just outside of Rome, New York. But getting a real-world license for one of these systems “is nearly impossible under current FCC rules and procedures,” says David Reed. He should know. He’s an internet pioneer who was previously a member of the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council.
Although he is not optimistic that it will happen soon, he’d like to see FCC policy change to allow for use of these bandwidth-enhancing technologies such as cognitive computing and white spaces broadband, which would use the digital television spectrum to provide broadband internet to rural areas. “Subdividing the spectrum or dividing up space into coverage areas actually destroy capacity as the number of radios increases,” he said in an email interview, adding, “while these cooperative techniques, which use computation, create more capacity as the number of radios increase.”