Military spectrum management & EW challenges drive wireless monitoring tech



Designers in the military RF world are faced with evolving challenges, such as sharing bandwidth in a crowded spectrum and electronic warfare threats that can adapt faster than legacy EW systems can respond. Here, Military Embedded Systems Editorial Director, John McHales, interviews Nicholas Balon, General Manager for CRFS.


Designers in the military world are faced with evolving challenges such as sharing bandwidth in a crowded spectrum and threats that can adapt faster than legacy EW systems can respond. In this Q&A with Nick Balon, General Manager for CRFS, he discusses how multi-node networks are enabling high-performance and how kits that leverage software defined radio () can reduce latencies when tracking () signals. Edited excerpts follow.

MCHALE REPORT. Please provide a brief description of CRFS such as the markets it serves, key technology areas, etc., and your role within the company.

BALON: Since 2007 we have been a private company based in Cambridge, U.K. and in Fairfax, Virginia. We are international with activity not only in the U.S., but in Europe and Asia as well. CRFS designs and manufactures RFeye receivers, detectors, and spectrum systems and provides all the software for these solutions. Our whole philosophy is to provide cost effective, high performance spectrum-monitoring nodes and multi-node networks so that nothing gets missed. We look for potential threats like GPS jammers providing the ability to geo-locate the threat or the point of interference. It is all about distributed real time 24/7 monitoring to gain actionable intelligence from the environment. Our company started in the regulatory sector, but now has moved into military markets such as electronic warfare (EW), spectrum monitoring and electronic support measures (ESM) for defense, and security.

MCHALE REPORT: What are the challenges facing military end users regarding and allocation of the spectrum?

BALON: It starts with the government spectrum sale – The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) Advanced Wireless Services 3 (AWS3) – which happened about a year and half ago, when licenses to use the 1695-1710 MHz, 1755-1780 MHz, and 2155-2180 MHz bands were sold to carriers. Until then the military had exclusive use of certain bands of frequency and now have to share it with commercial providers for satellite and broadcast. As you can imagine if someone paid $48 billon for spectrum commercial enterprise they would want to recoup that cost. For example if a military platform is turned on and blanks out service to their customer base this would be unacceptable. The spectrum is going to get more and more crowded creating the prospect for increased disruptions of service so being a good neighbor is increasingly important.

The challenge is how to manage the spectrum to best effect ensuring successful military operations without disruption to commercial networks that could result in the loss of millions of dollars in revenue. For instance it is reported that the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has experienced interference issues on satellite weather data resulting in periodic data loss affecting their ability to continuously monitor regional weather events. The same things could happen on military platforms. Defense users need to avoid potential interference with commercial networks by monitoring the RF environment within their theaters of operation so they can adjust accordingly.

Congress mandated that some of that money from the spectrum sale be put back into the system to manage this for the benefit of the public. DISA (Defense Information Systems Agency) asked industry to set up the National Spectrum Consortium to help manage the spectrum. In the first year about $500 million was funded and there has been about $1.5 billion in funding to date via solicited proposals to help manage the spectrum for military and commercial use.

Our tools monitor broad swaths of spectrum from 9 KHz to 18 GHz to record, map, and play back spectral data to let users know where and what their interference issues are. It can also geo-locate the emitters that may be causing interference. In addition, our software tools provide the ability to collect, record, analyze, and display spectral data so spectrum managers can make informed decision on how and when to deploy assets and plan missions. In the defense world our devices are used at key government test ranges. The challenge for the military is how do they still complete missions in this new commercial environment. They do so via efficient spectrum management.

MCHALE REPORT: What challenges are driving requirements in electronic warfare (EW) applications?

BALON: In EW the challenges are different than with spectrum sharing. With EW you have fast hopping systems such as . These systems present new challenges to legacy EW and spectrum monitoring platforms. These platforms continue to be upgraded and patched, but new threats come out daily, and EW systems need the ability to quickly adapt and change to meet these new threats.

Software defined radio (SDR) is enabler for this. SDR is adaptable and responds quickly to new waveforms. Our system is SDR in the ELINT world. We are providing kits to monitor and track ELINT threats as well as artifact testing. Our systems use the latest in GPP, GPU and technology for compute intensive real-time signal and data processing. This gives our customers the flexibility to adapt to a wide range of operational requirements.

Open architectures are in demand, as the primes and the military end-user don’t want to be left with single point solutions and systems with architectures that are difficult to upgrade. Billions have spent upgrading legacy systems, but they are hard pressed to keep up with fast moving threat landscapes using the latest, low-cost commercial technologies. The only way to counter these threats is by integrating open architecture designs that can be adapted within shorter time scales by inserting the latest computing technologies and open middleware to protect the on-going investment in application software.

MCHALE REPORT: How is your technology used in the military radar market?

BALON: The most significant value of our kit for radar systems is in the test and development area where several channels can be very precisely time linked, coherently if possible, and used, for example, to record a stimulus radar signal and a response radar signal from a jammer to allow the two to be compared in timing, fidelity and accuracy so the effectiveness of the system can be evaluated in terms of actual RF performance against different types of source radar modulations.

MCHALE REPORT: It seems every piece of electronic equipment today is getting smaller -- GPS systems, radios, etc. How have reduced size, weight, and power (SWaP) requirements affected your spectrum monitoring designs?

BALON: We have a program working now with unique SWaP requirements. Our distributed system architecture places the RF (receiver) in close proximity to the antenna. We can stream full rate IQ and time data over fiber to the compute clusters and solid-state storage arrays. Multiple data streams can be stored, processed, and made available across the sensor network to provide greatly improve situational awareness. With the distributed sensor approach you can attach small form factor receivers and processing modules where needed and run fiber back to the processing and data distribution platforms. The solution can also be remotely programmed to perform predefined tasks such as wideband sweeps, trigger-on-event and spectrum captures.

This modular architecture enables CRFS to provide solutions in multiple form factors; low SWaP packaged and processing nodes, rack mount board level hardware such as 3U cards with standard data formats over IP and VITA49 for example.

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Nick Balon, General Manager for CRFS, is responsible for the day-to-day running of the company. Previously he was General Manager at Xennia, which he helped propel into a leading industrial inkjet company and which was acquired by TenCate Plc in 2008. Prior to Xennia, Nick held senior management positions in the chemical industry at ICI and Ineos. He is an active angel investor and mentor. Nick has a BA from Oxford, MA from Yale, and was a Fox Overseas Fellow at Moscow State University.

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CRFS Limited

CRFS is a leader in real-time RF spectrum monitoring solutions for regulatory, defense, aerospace and security agencies. Based in Cambridge, UK and proud recipient of 2013 Queen's Award for Enterprise.

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