Tethered Drones: A Critical Component Of Tactical Communications

David Daly | 22 Sep 2021 | 12 min

David Daly

22 Sep 2021

10 minutes

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As tactical communications continue to advance, military forces around the world are experimenting with and adopting UAV technology. Tethered drones offer several significant benefits, making this platform an indispensable tool for warfighters and first responders. Serious consideration should be given to tethered drones and how this resource is a force multiplier for frontline operations.

The modern battlefield is rapidly changing. Militaries worldwide are embracing technology that is forcing many countries to rethink what programs are most important to support their future military needs. Platforms that have been staples of military arsenals for centuries are becoming obsolete as advances in UAVs, precision weapons, and telecommunications dilute their effectiveness. For example, in the United States, the Marine Corps conducted a series of wargames between 2018 and 2019 that solidified their decision to divest in tanks, artillery, infantry units, and light attack air platforms.

Technology is rapidly creating highly effective ground units with increased mobility, telecommunications advantages, and heightened lethality. Soldiers are becoming nodes within a greater network of information collection and dissemination. Miniature drones, augmented-reality headsets, and improved communications gear are becoming part of the modern soldier’s combat load. To take full advantage of the technological advances, many of the limitations present in current telecommunications solutions will need to be addressed.

Where Tethered Drones Fit In

The need for mobile networks and a shift to decentralized decision-making will only be possible with tools that maximize the benefits of these systems. Drones are a force multiplier in this space. Not only are these aerial platforms excellent intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) collection assets, but they can also be utilized to establish and extend the range of mobile networks without sacrificing the warfighter’s need for mobility.

There are many advantages to using drones for tactical communications. UAV technology is easy to set up and requires little time to do so. Drones can be used to extend the range of a mobile network and can do so while keeping soldiers safe from dangerous RF exposure.

Unlimited autonomy is the first critical benefit of tethered drones

Perhaps the most critical drawback to using untethered drones to expand network coverage and collect ISR is their limited flight time. Lithium polymer (LiPo) batteries power most untethered drones. On average, these types of batteries can sustain flight times of 20 to 30 minutes. Even the most ambitious designs can only remain in flight for an hour or so.

Combat environments require constant ISR coverage, and future combat environments will require consistent mobile networks. Even hour-long flight durations are not acceptable for this task. Tethered drones, by contrast, have near limitless power and thus can stay airborne for long periods of time.

Elistair’s Orion 2 drone utilizes the SAFE-T 2 tethered drone station as its base station. The SAFE-T 2 is a modular metallic structure, compact, and can easily be integrated into military and law enforcement vehicles. When connected to a power source, the SAFE-T 2 can provide power to the Orion 2. The dual-comms option integrates fiber optic and BPL data links in parallel, allowing for unmatched speeds and secure data transfer. The logistical footprint for the entire system is very small. Traditional setups can take hours before the node is operational. With the base station, Orion 2, and a tactical radio, soldiers can begin their operations in 15 minutes. With the SAFE-T 2 base station, the Orion 2 can stay airborne for a full 24 hours.

Surveillance drone

Having the antenna at a high level by its very nature will keep the RF away from people and will reduce the possibility of people coming into areas where the RF is at a high level.”

Mr. Hickey

Managing Director at Omega Dev Group and Australian Defence Force Veteran

Flying untethered drones is an acquired skill. Becoming a proficient drone pilot requires many hours of training. A minimum of 50 flight hours is typical to become proficient, but many experts argue that professional pilots need 200-300 hours of flight time in various conditions flying different types of UAVs before they become experts.

Soldiers worldwide are already burdened by the amount of knowledge and training they are given. It is not realistic to expect the warfighter to learn even more skills for the added benefit of employing drones. Tethered drones, like the Orion 2, eliminate the need for hours of training and flight time. As a result of the platform’s static nature, users can establish and maintain situational awareness at the click of a button. There is no need for advanced drone flying skills.

Existing Solutions & The Limitations of Ground-Based Equipment

For most militaries, the telecommunications world is a centralized model shifting to a decentralized network. The old model looks at warfare from the viewpoint of the commander. Telecommunications equipment was designed to send information up the chain of command. It was an effective model when the decision-makers were removed from frontline combat elements. As telecommunications technology has made its way to the ground pounder, centralized systems have become less effective. The evolution from Vietnam-era man-portable radios to SINCGARS units, which first fielded in the early 90s, showed a more extraordinary ability to inform the commanders, but little changed for the tip of the spear warfighter.

Radios such as SINCGARS are often paired with mobile antenna units such as the OE-254 to increase their effectiveness. As a ground-based antenna system, the OE-254 takes some time to set up, making it less than ideal for units with a need for high mobility. Typically, the efforts of several soldiers are required to erect the antenna and secure it to the ground. Rough terrain also causes issues when using systems like the OE-254. Dead space is created where the line of sight is lost between antennas and radio systems. UAVs such as Elistair’s ORION 2 tethered drone platform are an example of a more practical solution for expanding the modern warfighter’s network range and decreasing lost communication occurrences.

Network ranges expand and contract as the operation develops. Having a node on a measurable medium allows us to increase our network’s range and/or decrease our network’s range simply by raising or lowering the drone. Mark continues by saying that for every 5 feet the antenna is raised, a half-mile of range is added to the network. “Raising the node above trees, buildings, and vehicles will greatly enhance a high-gain antenna’s line of sight properties. Clear line of sight is vital.

Mark Stone

Business Development and tactical communications integration projects at Federal Resources and Special forces communicator for 25 years

Tethered drones can expand the network node to provide additional range to soldiers

They are a much better option when compared to the OE-254 and systems like it. Mark A Stone, a C4/ISR Business Rep/SME at Federal Solutions, expands on this point.

The modern soldier requires collecting and acting on ISR to shoot, move, and communicate. Radios which only function to transmit and receivevoice do little to help in this effort and, in some cases, will hinder the soldier’s ability to be effective. This is especially true when looking at some of the latest internet of things (IoT) devices appearing on the battlefield. These devices are sometimes referred to as the internet of battlefield things (IoBT).

Additionally, legacy military communication systems lack many of the advantages seen in their commercialcounterparts. While they have combat advantages such as modulation, encryption, and amplification, they typically only transmit voice over FM, AM, and MSK. Commercial units can transmit voice, data, location, and SMS over QAM, QPSK, and DSS. The commercial units are much better equipped to handle IoT and the decentralized network model.

In an era where the radio is becoming more of a network device than just a radio, FM, AM, and MSK are just not the correct modulations to handle the bandwidth and data requirements of current and future conflicts.

Communication assets that rely on satellites are also a part of modern telecommunication assets but have their own limitations. In most cases, the satellites used by the military are owned by companies, not the government. This forces the government to rely on outside parties to keep these systems operational. Adversaries could also target satellites and render satellite-based communications useless.

A more practical limitation of satellite communications is that while they help communicate beyond line of sight (BLOS), they are susceptible to electronic warfare and cyber-attacks. Also, with an increased presence of IoT devices on the battlefield, satellite communications lack the bandwidth to handle rapid additions of multiple nodes.

As bandwidth needs increase with further telecommunications advances, it will simply be too challenging to bring additional satellites into operation to scale and meet the demand. To be an effective fighting force, soldiers on the ground must become part of a mobile network. Radios of the future will need to be designed as part of a software-defined network. These mobile networks, and the nodes they encompass, will need to be supported by assets, like tethered drones, that increase their range and power without hindering mobility.

What Warfighters Need From Tactical Communications

In their C3 (Command, Control, and Communications) Modernization Strategy, the United States Department of Defense had the following to say regarding the future needs of warfighters, “Future conflicts could well be decided by information advantage, success going to the side that transforms vast amounts of data from distributed sensors and weapons systems across multiple domains into actionable information for better, faster decision making and precision effects.”

This strategy, released in September 2020, highlights what many militaries worldwide know and are already preparing for; the future of warfare will require integrated tactical mobile networks and the equipment to optimize them.

As the fight becomes more mobile, combatants will not have the time to stop and set up static positions

They will need to be constantly on the move. Mobile networks are the best solution for supporting this type of fighting. From the United States Army’s perspective, tactical networks will be successful when they incorporate command post mobility, secure wireless communications, cybersecurity, and edge computing. It is a view shared by many forces around the world.

Commanders understand now that the existing model of spending hours to set up command tents takes up an enormous amount of resources while sacrificing situational awareness. This type of setup limits the flexibility of the warfighter and makes maintaining the tempo of military operations difficult.

The move from wired communications to wireless has been historically slow for militaries around the world. A change must come in the form of small wireless systems serving various roles across the battlefield. These wireless systems will need to be encrypted but allow soldiers to use laptops, tablets, and even smartphones to transfer and receive information over WiFi, LTE, MIMO, and Mobile Network-Multiple Input Multiple Output (MN-MIMO).

MN-MIMO is particularly interesting. This advanced waveform can provide reliable, high bandwidth, mesh video and data communications even in restrictive environments such as combat theaters. MN-MIMO combines multiple antennas and digital signal processing to enhance the performance of wireless mesh networks (MANET). The system can even be attached to drones like the Orion 2 for added expansion of the network’s range. Aerial relays, like those created with tethered drones, allow for rapid set up and continuous situational awareness. Advances like this will become the requirement for any military looking to stay competitive.

Mobile networks will need to have the ability to withstand cyber-attacks from adversary forces. The mobility of these networks will help achieve this as they leave far less of a digital footprint than the historical setups of large, well-established bases with vast numbers of systems waiting to be attacked.

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