Military Embedded Systems

Tom Swift would be amazed


October 15, 2008

Joe Pavlat

Editorial Director


The breadth and capability of communications are increasing at an exponential rate. About half of the world's population now has access to a mobile phone, and millions of new subscribers are added weekly. Communication for the average person is becoming increasingly wireless, and the silicon, software, and infrastructure to support it are evolving quickly.

It is now as easy to make a phone call to distant parts of the world as it is to call next door. While we take this in stride, it has broad implications for all of us.

Presentations at the recent Intel Developer Forum (IDF), held August 19-21 in San Francisco, certainly contained the usual amount of hype; however, technologies under development highlighted at IDF credibly predict an increasingly wireless world with seamless voice, video, and data communications that are always on. Wi-Fi, WiMAX, next-generation cellular technologies including Long Term Evolution (LTE), lower-power silicon, improved battery technologies, and even wireless device recharging via resonant RF coupling will enable more numerous and powerful services. In addition to laptops, cellular phones, and PDAs, Intel is planning for a host of low-cost mobile Internet devices that will increase Internet access across the world. They predict 15 billion new wireless network connections in the next 10 years. I believe it. Many of these devices move away from the data center and desktop, and this will produce significant ramifications for the embedded computer industry.

As well, this has many positive - and a few potentially negative - implications for military electronic systems designers and warfare planners. The obvious benefit is that the goal of "any data, any time, to anyone, anywhere" will be enabled by these innovations. As we all know, virtually all silicon development is driven by commercial markets, and military designers must work with what is available. Some of the technology Intel presented, including advanced thermal design and heat dissipation techniques, will directly benefit the designs of equipment that must operate in extremely challenging environments.

But at the same time, an increasing reliance on radio transmission for all of this wonderful new stuff has the very real potential to create vulnerabilities that might be very hard to overcome. Hacking into secure networks will become an important weapon that will be developed by countries and armies. Due to the relatively low power used by wireless infrastructure, brute force jamming could be used to disrupt battlefield communications. Agile, frequency-hopping radio systems and redundant communications paths will ameliorate this somewhat, but sophisticated directed-energy weapons already under development will be able to permanently cripple critical systems. Major powers will have the ability to disable or interfere with satellite communications. This has major implications for remote awareness and management of battlefield conditions (and even the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles, upon which at least the U.S. military increasingly depends). And, because of the global and open nature of commercial consumer communications technology, protecting intellectual property will be difficult.

This is not just a concern for military planners. As we have seen during recent California earthquakes, disrupting civilian communications can have a significant impact on civil order, especially in major metropolitan areas. All is not gloom and doom, however, as continuous innovation will reduce some of these risks by keeping cyberwar a moving target.

I think I will go up to the attic and see what Tom Swift had to say.

To learn more, e-mail Joe at [email protected].


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