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CHIPS Articles: Combine Next-Generation Radio with Information Technology: What Do You Get?

Combine Next-Generation Radio with Information Technology: What Do You Get?
That’s the question driving DARPA’s yearlong effort to probe what’s possible when software defined radio technology beams into the wild world of wirelessly connected gadgets
By DARPA News - May 4, 2017
The physical sphere of computers, home appliances, vehicles, cameras, and the ever-growing menagerie of handheld devices has become increasingly intertwined—by way of wireless connections to the internet—with the digital spheres of data and information. This expanding new technology arena brings with it vast opportunities for innovation, challenging and growing demand for access to the electromagnetic spectrum, and new vulnerabilities to ill-willed interference.

Catalyzing interest and awareness in this cyber-physical intersection—and the development of new technology with an eye on both its promise and peril—is what program manager Tom Rondeau hopes his yearlong campaign, known as DARPA Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest, will help to achieve.

Unlike conventional radios, which are designed to work with specific waveforms (AM and FM, cellular, digital TV, and WiFi, for example), software defined radios can send and receive many different waveforms, and toggle between them on the fly by means of software code that defines their behavior at any particular moment. As such, they have the electronic guts and, increasingly, the artificial intelligence needed to navigate and even coordinate activity at the interface of the physical and digital domains.

What is still needed, and what Rondeau is aiming to energize, is a community of SDR users to map out and get comfortable within this fast-evolving landscape, and pave the way to a seamless and safe cyberphysical world.

“We want to engage and enable a community of interested engineers and scientists working towards the future confluence of radio and information technology,” Rondeau said.

Rondeau has been doing just that with a multi-city “roadshow” to inform the technology community about how DARPA is embracing and preparing for this coming confluence. It began in February with an SDR hackfest in Brussels that focused on interference issues in commercial communication. In March, at a gathering of radio engineers known as IEEE DySPAN in Baltimore, he and fellow DARPA program manager Paul Tilghman—both in the Agency’s Microsystems Technology Office—ran “The Battle of the ModRecs”—short for Modulation Recognitions. There, competitors were tasked with identifying and characterizing simulated and randomly timed radio emissions of some 20 different waveforms. This ability is a first step in managing the electromagnetic spectrum in the far more efficient ways that future demand will call for.

Throughout May—as a buildup to a final event in November, the DARPA Bay Area Hackfest—Rondeau will continue his roadshow, which will include hyperlocal visits to small hacker and maker spaces as well as high-profile keynote addresses to the SDR community. On May 9, 10, 11, and 12, respectively, he will visit maker and hacker spaces in Niwot, Colorado; Vista, California; Austin, Texas; and Santa Clara, California.

On May 20, Rondeau will give a keynote address at the massive Bay Area Maker Faire in San Mateo, California. His team will be working out additional roadshow stops as well. The latest roadshow schedule and Rondeau’s blog entries about his visits are available at the DARPA SDR Hackfest website. It’s all part of DARPA’s and Rondeau’s commitment to work with a wider diversity of research and development performers in the science, engineering, and technology communities.

A valuable DARPA-hosted event for innovators interested in participating in the DARPA Bay Area Hackfest will be a workshop on May 22 at the Computer History Museum in San Jose, California. This gathering will provide an opportunity for SDR experts as well as the SDR-curious to meet one another and open the way to creating teams for those who not only want to attend the November Hackfest’s open hacker space and speaker sessions but also want to compete in the “missions” portion of the event.

In these missions, which will be undertaken at NASA Ames in Mountain View, California, teams chosen based on applications that will be due in mid-July will be challenged to exercise their SDR hacking skills with the goal of controlling remotely piloted aircraft through specified sets of operations.

DARPA has published a Special Notice (DARPA-SN-17-40) on with information about the workshop and how to register.

DARPA Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest logo
DARPA Software Defined Radio (SDR) Hackfest logo
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