QNX helps U.S. military make the jump to software defined radio

The U.S. military uses about 30 families of radio systems — systems that, in many cases, can’t communicate with one another. This incompatibility is inconvenient, inefficient, and, on occasion, downright dangerous for military personnel.

It’s a serious problem. And to solve it, the Department of Defense (DoD) is investing heavily in software defined radio (SDR). The premise of SDR is simple: Rather than implement filters, signal detectors, and other radio components in hardware (the traditional model), you implement them in upgradeable software. This approach allows a single device to support multiple modulation schemes, wireless protocols, encryption standards, etc; it can also future-proof the device against new or updated standards that hit the airwaves.

The benefits extend far beyond military radios. By using SDR, a variety of products — including wireless basestations, public-service radios, cellphones, and even in-car telematics systems — can intelligently adapt to the evolving wireless landscape. Better yet, a single SDR radio can replace several conventional devices. Emergency personnel, for example, can communicate with one another without having to schlep multiple radios, as they often do today.

To make the jump to SDR, the DoD created the Joint Tactical Radio System (JTRS) program, pronounced “jitters.” This program promises to create a new generation of reconfigurable military radios that offer far greater interoperability for voice, data, and video communications than conventional fixed radios.

About 3 years ago, I wrote an article on why the QNX Neutrino RTOS is a good fit for JTRS SDR. Harris Corporation, the leading supplier of SDRs to the U.S. military, must agree with me, because they’ve recently disclosed that the Harris Falcon III radio family, which includes radios in vehicular, handheld, and “manpack” configurations, is based entirely on QNX Neutrino.

From what I’ve read, the DoD has already deployed tens of thousands of these radios in Irag, Afghanistan, and other areas. The radios include the Falcon III AN/PRC-152(C) handheld radio, hailed by the U.S. army as "one of the greatest inventions of 2007." Adulation aside, the AN/PRC-152(C) is the first SDR device to be certified as fully compliant with version 2.2 of the JTRS Software Communications Architecture (SCA).

The SCA is important, because it provides a “blueprint” for building JTRS radios. Among other things, it ensures that JTRS software applications can be ported and reused easily across platforms. To ensure this portability, the SCA encompasses two well-established software standards: the CORBA architecture and the POSIX application programming interface (API).

Because SCA compliance is mandated for JTRS radios, Harris had to use a POSIX RTOS for their Falcon III products. QNX Neutrino served as a good choice, not only because it is POSIX certified, but because it was designed from the start to support POSIX APIs -- POSIX is built into the very core of the OS. As a result, QNX Neutrino doesn’t need a performance robbing (and memory consuming) POSIX adaptation layer.

Wayback dept: All this talk of military radios brings me back to the '60s, when I was the only kid on the block to own a Johnny Seven Micro Helment phone set, which consisted of a microphone-equipped military-style helmet and an accompanying walkie talkie. It was a pretty cool toy, except for one thing: the helmet and walkie talkie were connected by a 30-foot wire. So you couldn't run anywhere without literally dragging your brother-in-arms with you. To view the original TV ad, click here.

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