Communication and Co-operation Create a Tactical LTE Network

Joint development with partner vendors ADLINK and Connect Tech enables LCR Embedded to develop portable LTE that provides reliable connectivity for first responders when regular networks are non-existent.

Communications to coordinate rescue efforts can be the first casualty when they are attempted in emergency situations or extreme environments, including the battlefield. In disaster areas such as earthquake zones, if the communications infrastructure is functioning at all, it is often jammed with harried users, making it hard to access even for the personnel who rely on communications to craft a rapid, effective response to the disaster. A nonfunctioning or jammed communications network can render first responders unaware of the full scale of the situation and unable to make accurate evaluations for appropriate courses of action.

One existing possibility in such situations is a “Cell on Wheels” temporary installation typically deployed at large special events such as concerts and major sports events.  Such “CoW” installations, offered by providers such as Nokia and Siemens, are nevertheless turned up as stationary units with extremely limited mobility and are designed to support thousands of users in centralized, controlled, and well-defined locations.  They are also extremely expensive.  Its cost, large user pool, and relative lack of mobility make the CoW a less than ideal solution in what are often somewhat decentralized, uncontrolled, and rapidly evolving disaster scenarios.  A smaller scale, more highly mobile and rapidly deployable solution is needed in such circumstances.

Figure 1: The LSF-02 is a portable man-pack radio by LCR for first responders and tactical battlefield LTE communications.

Figure 1: The LSF-02 is a portable man-pack radio by LCR for first responders and tactical battlefield LTE communications.

As a consequence of disasters such as 9/11 (2001) and Hurricane Katrina (2005), the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) mandated that first responder communication was to move to Long Term Evolution (LTE) or 4G LTE to allow the different response teams to communicate and coordinate with first responders at or near the scene.

Despite the fact that such communications must function in challenging environments, it is also important in emergency or battlefield conditions that communications are as far-reaching as possible. Portable communications units or man-packs can provide mobile and mission-ready tactical LTE networks. These networks can be deployed instantly, allowing communications to resume.

This article examines how system design expertise and solid collaborative relationships between industry leaders brought a varied set of skills together to create an ideal emergency/battlefield communications end-product that offers everything that existing solutions do not.

LTE Communications

Chassis, backplane and integrated systems provider LCR has developed the LSF-02, a rugged, instant, tactical LTE network, based on Connect Tech’s COM Express Type 6 carrier card, using a COM Express Module from ADLINK and LTE communications software from another third-party supplier. A partnership of multiple vendors can offer development and design support as well as build on proven technologies.

“LTE is a well-defined protocol, not a proprietary one,” observes John Long, Vice President, Integrated Systems for LCR. “It can interconnect simply because it is well-defined.” In the battle arena, tactical LTE allows communications to penetrate even hard-to-reach areas where there is no functioning infrastructure and adjust dynamically to meet the changing needs of what could be a rapidly changing situation.

The LSF-02 computing and communications platform, at 20 pounds/approximately 9 kilograms with batteries, is portable and can be worn on one’s person (Figure 1). It has a redundant, field-swappable battery system that uses solid-state SS-2590 rechargeable Li-Ion battery packs, which are external to the sealed case, to allow for continuous operation. Input voltage is 9V to 36V, and the pack has a maximum RF output of 1W (30dBm for each of the two antenna ports).

A 55-pin external I/O, shown in Figure 2, can be used to connect to the Ethernet through another router if required, for TCP/IP communications. Alternatively, it can provide VoIP using the Internet via a backhaul connection.

The LSF-02 platform is a complete LTE network in a box, says Long, with options for customization on the RF side. It is also modular, supporting two processors and custom RF to meet application-specific needs. The baseband processor puts RF in an Ethernet format for ease of use (see Figure 2).

Figure 2: The LSF-02 has two antennae for RF customization, a COM Express Type 6 carrier from Connect Tech and an Express-HL-i7-4700EQ from ADLINK.

Figure 2: The LSF-02 has two antennae for RF customization, a COM Express Type 6 carrier from Connect Tech and an Express-HL-i7-4700EQ from ADLINK.

As well as broadband mobile data connectivity between tablets, smartphones, rugged terminals and displays, LSF-02 allows real-time audio/video calls and multimedia conferencing with a typical range of .62 miles/1 kilometer, depending on terrain and conditions. It is also self-discovering, with the ability to add users or extend the geographical coverage. Up to 16 active LTE users can be supported per unit. This means that powering on multiple LSF-02s in an area creates an automatic “clustered” network, and LTE handsets can immediately begin communicating and sharing data among themselves even around challenging terrain.

“It is a welcome and badly needed alternative to Cell on Wheels,” says Long, “perfectly filling the gap for tactical LTE networks.” Long explains that while the LSF-02 can be totally self-contained with no outside communications, it can also be backhauled to other cells by virtue of the two Ethernet ports the CCG011 COM Express Type 6 rugged, ultra-light carrier card from Connect Tech offers. The design requirements for the LSF-02 are shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Design Requirements for LSF-02 by LCR Embedded Systems.

Table 1: Design Requirements for LSF-02 by LCR Embedded Systems.

Interestingly, Table 1 lists many variations for the internal electronics, especially the RF radio standards. One of the ways this is accomplished in the unit is using open-standard modules such as COM Express and PCI Express (mini). The Mini-PCIe slots provided on the carrier offer flexible modularity, while COMe bolts together the primary partnerships used to create the portable LTE base station.

Form Factor

Computer-on-Module (COM) is an ideal choice when a system’s I/O functions stay relatively stable over time, but there is a possibility for upgrading the processor as needs evolve. The COM Express Module is the mezzanine card that plugs into the I/O carrier board. “COM Express is the most powerful, modular architecture,” says Long. “It continues to evolve as it gets deployed. It allows a cost-effective solution, as another COM Express module can be chosen for use if needed,” he says. “Validation is simple,” he adds, when using the same type of COM Express module (in this case, Type 6).

The ADLINK COM Express Module, Express-HL-i7-4700EQ (Figure 3), and Connect Tech card run the third-party software that provides the intelligence of the LTE network. The ADLINK module was an obvious choice for this project, says Long. The companies have worked together before, and also with Connect Tech. “We wanted suppliers that we knew would just work together well. We knew, when combining these two partners [the LSF-02] would work out of the box; LCR would not have much trouble-shooting, nor need much validation testing on that portion of the design, so we could focus on other parts of the design, on more complex issues that had multiple variables,” he says.

Figure 3: ADLINK’s SBC Express-HL-i7-4700EQ was selected for the project based on previous collaboration experience, allowing Connect Tech to focus on other parts of the design.

Figure 3: ADLINK’s module Express-HL-i7-4700EQ was selected for the project based on previous collaboration experience, allowing Connect Tech to focus on other parts of the design.

Communicating Relationships

The relationship between the three companies means that they can offer design support. Connect Tech provides LCR with hardware and support, and is also a design partner for ADLINK.

The Connect Tech carrier card was an ideal choice as it is a readily available off-the-shelf product and a known good fit with the ADLINK COM Express Module, Express-HL-i7-4700EQ, says Michele Kasza, VP Sales, Connect Tech. “When it comes to COM Express there is an assumption that a custom carrier board is always required,” she says. “Off-the-shelf products can be a perfect fit when lower quantities do not make sense for custom design.” Another benefit is reducing the development time, she points out. “The custom design process can be very long, whereas Connect Tech delivers a variety of carrier card options in as little as 2 – 5 business days.” This, concludes Kasza, makes an off-the-shelf carrier a logical choice, ensuring fastest time to market while removing the costly design process.

In this case, the rugged CCG011, a COM Express Type 6 card, was chosen for its small footprint (125mm x 95mm) that matches the dimensions of the COM Express Basic size module. Although the carrier is a Basic size footprint the CCG011 is also compatible with Compact sized modules.

In addition to the previously mentioned dual Gigabit Ethernet ports, the CCG011 is rich in I/O, including dual Mini-PCIe expansion sockets for either two half or full length cards, four SATA ports, two mSATA ports, eight USB ports and two DisplayPort++ (DDI) interfaces which can be used for DisplayPort, HDMI, DVI or VGA use. Also on board are Audio, Serial, SMBus, I2C and more. [CCG011] is designed to military standards for shock, vibration and temperature range (it operates at -40 °C – +85 °C) and is a proven design for the ADLINK module Express-HL-i7-4700EQ already used by LCR in other projects. The ADLINK module  supports the Intel Core i7-4700EQ quad core processor used in the LSF-02, as well as its QM87 Express chipset.

Customers may want to add their own software on top of the box to provide a more full-featured LTE network. Long agrees, pointing out that military customers may want encryption, which involves physically encrypting data before it goes into the Ethernet LAN. This can be achieved by software and run on the ADLINK COM Express Module.

Working with established partners can reduce the development time as products that have been proven to work together can be specified. Selecting off-the-shelf products also accelerates the design time and reduces the cost of customization but allows the desired flexibility for particular end uses and environments. No two emergency or battlefield situations are alike: a reliable, rugged communications pack has to operate in a variety of harsh conditions and must operate ‘out-of-the-box’ and without fail. This takes system design expertise and some solid relationships that bring a varied set of skills together in one end product.

This article is sponsored by ADLINK Technology. ___________________________________________________________________________________________________ hayes_caroline_115Caroline Hayes has been a journalist, covering the electronics sector for over 20 years. She has worked on many titles, most recently thepan-European magazine, EPN.

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