Sandia LabNews

Labs project advances next-generation secure wireless networks

Labs project advances next-generation secure wireless networks

A new secure wireless network can soon be used to help monitor soldiers in the field and help protect US Air Force bases and DOE nuclear facilities.

Matured from work over the last decade, Ultra Wideband (UWB) has recently surfaced upon the radar screen of wireless technologies.

“Although the first certified product appeared in 2002, UWB is becoming an important player with wireless security and other applications,” says Timothy Cooley (6428), principal investigator of the project. “The role of Sandia has been to spearhead and accelerate the development of UWB for secure wireless communication networks used for sensor networks and for wireless controlled operated weapons systems.”

Sandia’s task was to develop an “ultra-secure wireless network communication,” says Timothy. A highly secure wireless communication was defined to be a highly secure physical layer such as that offered by UWB that is combined with highly encrypted data.

This secure form of wireless communication leverages UWB with the unyielding encryption protection of the Advanced Encryption Standard (AES) to form UWB/AES.

UWB transmits a flood of ultra-short microwave pulses of energy on the order of 100 picoseconds (one picosecond is one-millionth of one-millionth or 10-12 second) in duration that extend over an extremely wide band covering several gigahertz of frequency.

“With the spreading of impulse energy over such wide frequency spectrum, the signal power falls near or within the noise floor, making these signals extremely difficult to detect, intercept, or jam, and when combined with AES, virtually impossible to crack,” he says. “Utilizing the immense available spectrum of UWB also improves wireless performance to accommodate the increased data rate needed by advanced sensors.”

UWB — often called fast frequency chirp, super wideband, carrierless, or impulse radio — is unique since its classical form is non-carrier based communication and the FCC has allotted it a very wide frequency spectrum ranging from 3.1 to 10.6 GHz or 7.5 GHz, he says.

“While UWB impulse provides a new form of wireless communication, its impulse signal can also be used for radar,” says Timothy.

According to Timothy, the new wireless technology promises to be a gateway for a new generation of advanced sensors created by fusing UWB communication with UWB radar. The new technology can be used to detect intrusion of adversaries or insurgents for the protection of tactical forces and forward bases such as those deployed in the Middle East or Iraq. He says this technology is of particular value to the US Air Force Electronic Systems Center (ESC), whose mission is to provide the latest in command, control, and information systems for the Air Force. The ESC sponsored the work, he says.

UWB wireless communication can help soldiers in the field where stealth operation and covert technology are crucial.

Any RF detection by an adversary can target critical operating positions, jeopardizing assets and forces. UWB can offer lower probability of detection and interception “This lowers the risk posed by enemies or combat adversaries from detecting our positions and from jamming our vital wireless communication,” he says.

An advanced form of UWB wireless network located on each soldier can send his state-of-health information — heart rate, respiration, and a biometric identifier to distinguish the soldier from a foe.

“This helps eliminate accidental death from fratricide,” he says. “GPS can be also combined to provide his location at all times as well.”

Other advantages are in size, weight, and battery life. UWB transceivers can be small and use less power for longer operation and greater battery life in the field.

At this point the current UWB technology is too large and expensive for troops, but progress to miniaturize and reduce costs is expected within the next five years. The cost could fall from $10 to $100 per soldier when mass-produced.

Based upon tests conducted at the KoolSpan Encryption Laboratory in Santa Clara, Calif., earlier this year, Sandia with KoolSpan Inc. demonstrated a wireless UWB network bridge with real-time 256-bit AES encryption for live-streaming video images generated from a surveillance camera or thermal imager.

The tests used only microwatts of transmitted power, approximately 1,000 times less power than typically used by conventional wireless IEEE 802.11b or Wi-Fi. Timothy says research on the technology will continue and will eventually be used to help secure DOE labs.