Reutech announces ‘new dawn’ in HF radio communications

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Reutech Communications has introduced a novel method of using legacy technology to create a ‘resilient’ or reliable radio network capable of not only sending voice communications but also data.

Addressing the Military Information and Communications Symposium of South Africa (MICSSA) in Pretoria last week, Dr James Whitehead, manager of engineering at Reutech Communications, announced that he had “exciting results” to share.

By digitally upgrading an old technology — HF radio – he said Reutech had inaugurated a ‘new dawn’ in military radio communications.

High Frequency (HF) radio operates in the 3 o 30 MHz frequency band and is a form of beyond line-of-sight (BLOS) communication due to the radio waves being bounced off the ionosphere, giving coverage halfway around the world, making it a low-cost alternative to satellite communications.

He pointing out that HF communications are one of the oldest electronic military communications mediums, and that HF has both disadvantages and advantages. Among the ‘downsides’ are the narrow band, the complexity of the equipment and aerials used, plus an experienced, skilled operator needed to make HF radio viable. In addition, the time of day and weather conditions affect communication. The narrow bandwidth also limits sending text or images as well as making some types of communications, such as streaming video, impossible. Another difficulty is the congested and contested bandwidth and the area where the radio operator or the receiver is located, which is especially problematic in built-up areas.

On the positive side, HF communications do not require complex technology such as satellite downlinks, for example, and can be carried by a single soldier or a vehicle and yet reach thousands of kilometres. HF has long been used in strategic military communications; therefore, it is familiar and is very difficult to jam, disrupt or turn off.

According to Whitehead, there has been a ‘renaissance’ in this old technology. Third generation (3G) digital technology adds a layer to the HF band, revolutionising HF communications, resulting in an increased bandwidth up to STANAG 4538 level, a NATO standard available to the South African National Defence Force (SANDF). Automated Link Establishment (ALE) have combined to make HF radio simpler to use and able to transmit both text and images, as well as reliable voice transmission. This gives an advantage of locational diversity, but also frequency diversity.

For example, Whitehead suggested that four fixed stations working on ten frequencies made 40 possible combinations, so the Resilient Network/ALE can decide which frequency is optimal for the communication.

While HF radio is widespread at sea, landward applications that were discussed would be in Command and Control (C2) and border security.

The essence of the new HF technology is its network function, which replaces the old point-to-point form, where, for instance, an area commander might talk to a specific armoured vehicle or radio operator – now communication is possible across a network.

A key new element is ‘resilience’, where a ‘resilient’ network would be one that the soldier or sub-unit could rely on to send and receive voice and text reliably and ‘get comfort from the continuous connectivity.’ This includes an ‘almost WhatsApp connectivity’ which, like the cell phone app, preserves earlier messages.

The landward network was tested over much of South Africa, with nodes being in built-up areas, and the results were positive, Reutech said. The advantage of networks is that communications can happen from fixed-point nodes to moving ones (a command point to a vehicle or multiple vehicles) or back from them, or to each other, or to dismounted personnel using manpacks.

Tests were also done to send data, such as email, over HF nets, with success. Whitehead added that with the new digital-supported HF network system, the radio operator did not need to have a complex understanding of weather or HF radio, and that deployed signals members would have a much easier time than their earlier counterparts. It should be added that these HF sets are considerably smaller than earlier sets.

A cell phone end-to-end encrypted messaging app has been tested by Reutech’s sister company, Nanotech, and this opens the possibilities for tactical military BLOS communications to be paired with civilian communications, which is a real leap ahead, according to Whitehead.

He said: “It’s more important to know that you can communicate than to know you can communicate sometimes at a very high speed.” Reutech’s aim is to provide reliable communications to troops. He stressed that the new network could not only hop frequencies but prevent jamming, because jamming is very directional, so the network could select an alternate fixed point to receive communications.

Whitehead summarised his presentation by saying South Africa was at the forefront of HF communications with the new waveform ability and the networking capability creating a ‘new dawn’. “We’re there, we’re ready”, Whitehead said.