Tactical wearables and the self-organizing network

From Defence Research and Development Canada

August 19, 2014

DRDC is conducting a series of trials to improve the performance and security of mobile ad hoc networks which aim to enable rapid decision making for dispersed operations. The first trial tested the tracking of a target on the move.

It is clear that perfect cyber security does not exist and that centralized communications hubs can be vulnerable to attacks. But scientists have been moving closer to a potential solution while trying to answer one of nature’s riddles: "How does a school of fish defend itself from a shark attack?"


A Canadian Armed Forces soldier interacts with the tracking application on a Google Glass wearable heads up display.

Each individual in the group only responds to their nearest neighbour.

Like many seemingly complex natural phenomena, the answer to the riddle is found in a few simple rules, most importantly that each individual in the group only responds to their nearest neighbour. Inspired by the self-organizing behaviour of animal groups such as schools of fish or flocks of birds, professor Richard Yu from Carleton University, Dr. Helen Tang from Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) and their graduate students have used recent advances in consensus algorithms to design a mobile network that is resilient to attacks. Consensus algorithms use distributed decision-making where all the devices in a network contribute to agree on the outcomes of calculations in a fashion similar to majority rule, rather than the traditional method of decision-making where a central authority determines which results are valid.

“Canadian soldiers operating in the dismounted role cannot be reliant on existing civilian communications infrastructure to support their scheme of manoeuvre,” said Major Cihlar of the Canadian Army’s Directorate of Land Requirements (DLR). Soldiers on the ground, called dismounted soldiers, require solutions that are adaptable to new and dynamic environments. Traditional centralized networks like cell phone towers are vulnerable to single point failures if their central server is compromised by physical damage or a cyber-attack.

“The majority of the places we are sent do not have a communications infrastructure,” said Major Cihlar.

Enter Resilient Tactical Networks (RTNs), a buzzword for advanced mobile ad hoc networks (MANETs) that are resilient against cyber-attacks and connection failures. MANETs are an emerging type of wireless networking in which mobile devices are connected on an ad hoc basis. They are self-forming and self-healing, enabling peer-to-peer communication between mobile devices without relying on centralized resources or fixed infrastructure, like cellular towers.

As soldiers move to new locations, their devices would adapt so that data could hop from one device to the next, around buildings and other obstacles.

For example, in a tactical environment without infrastructure, each dismounted soldier wearing a mobile device connected to the ad hoc network would act as a connection point, or “node”, in the network. As soldiers move to new locations, their devices would adapt so that data could hop from one device to the next, around buildings and other obstacles that would typically degrade or obstruct traditional line of sight communications. Even if one or several connected devices fail or lose reception, the remaining devices in the network can adapt, and continue to communicate to keep the network alive.

“Wireless is the future. And everything will be connected,” professor Richard Yu proclaimed at a recent workshop at Carleton University that also included academics from the University of Ontario Institute of Technology and the University of Western Ontario, military members from the Canadian Army and Defence Scientists from DRDC. Organized by DRDC, the workshop aimed to help researchers understand the Canadian Armed Forces’ needs, get input on DRDC’s research, exchange ideas and facilitate further collaborations.

But the professor also cautioned, “Security is a challenge and we need to be aware of the Army’s requirements.”

Because MANETs have no central security authority, the research teams are developing new security methods so that each device in the network knows which of the other devices can be trusted, by calculating trust values for each device and verifying their identity, amongst other techniques. To calculate trust values for each device you can monitor their activities for unusual behavior and apply consensus algorithms. And to verify a device’s identity you can analyze each device’s unique radio signature. Due to slight differences between every microchip, buried deep within the signal of each radio transmission is a unique pattern which means that each device has its own “fingerprint”.

Major Janus Cihlar discussed the Canadian Army’s requirements at the workshop in great detail. “The modern battlespace is an irregular one, against a tech-enabled enemy, within urban environments and/or complex terrain,” said Major Cihlar during his presentation.

Using numbers to overpower your adversaries and slugging it out is an outdated strategy. “The battle of the future is dispersed in time, space and purpose,” said the Major.

“Fighting smart, out-deciding the enemy is what wins battles now. Small groups will disperse and then commanders can aggregate tactical information and instruct their troops to make a unified and decisive action to deliver effect and force an outcome.”

Every fight is different, and requires adaptable capabilities. But each new capability, like the new tactical radios being developed through the Canadian Army’s Integrated Soldier System Project (ISSP), brings with it new challenges, both technical and human related.

“Fighting smart, out-deciding the enemy is what wins battles now. Small groups will disperse and then commanders can aggregate tactical information...

Major Janus Cihlar

“There are only so many men and women in the Army,” said Major Cihlar. “And there are limits on what each soldier can do within a given period of time, so any new system cannot be a burden to a soldier’s cognitive load.”

Major Ryan Grant, a signals officer for the Directorate of Soldier Systems Project Management, emphasized the Canadian Army’s requirement for ease of use.

“The intent is not to have the soldier interact with the network. It’s not the soldier who enables the network, but the network that enables the soldier,” Major Grant said during his presentation. “The soldier just turns it on and starts using it.”

DRDC’s cyber operations team continues to work on the security techniques that need to be built into ad hoc networks so that enemy devices cannot pretend to be friendly devices and intercept information or bring down a network. They intend to produce a prototype device to evaluate the validity and robustness of the new techniques.

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