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College of Engineering and Computing

  • Communications equipment aboard a U.S. Navy vessel

Adapting innovative systems for more secure naval communications

U.S. Navy missions rely on a cutting-edge communications infrastructure for optimal performance in areas including ship-to-ship and ship-to-air transmissions, voice and video mission data, and navigation support. But communications and mission capabilities continue to evolve from basic voice communications to higher data bandwidths, which require new bands and modes of operation. Electrical Engineering Professor Guoan Wang began a research project last November that aims to enable adaptive communications technologies for naval operations. 

Wang’s research is funded by an $800,000 award from the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and Department of Defense. The one-year project also involves co-principal investigators Sanjib Sur from the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, and Electrical Engineering professors Mohammod Ali, David Matolak and Alphan Sahin

“This research is targeted to help the U.S. Navy create future infrastructure for resilient high performance and secure wireless communications. Component designs, such as antennas, will be one beneficiary,” Wang says. “Navy missions always want better communications with multiple frequency bands and functionalities, but we don't want huge sizes or dimensions that can drain power consumption.” 

Naval communications are unique from more simplified systems and must be designed differently. Certain components must support multiple frequency bands, and some communications systems must be moved to a higher frequency to reduce size and power consumption. One of Wang’s goals is to share the frequency spectrum, which plots and classifies electromagnetic waves as they occur in space or other environments. Adaptive communications technologies refer to frequency reconfigurability to support different communication protocols. This includes available frequency bands, which adapt to the surrounding environment.

“Since current technology still has limitations, we’re enabling new research because in small systems on some Navy ships, a lot of energy is lost when heat is generated. Ships have many antennas which interfere with other components, so we want to design new structures to help mitigate dissipation issues and reduce interruptions,” Wang says. 

Wang’s research background includes utilizing wireless communications antennas for secure communications. This project aims to overcome current technical challenges, while providing higher data rates without constraining the Navy’s new mission capabilities. According to Wang, the current naval communications infrastructure is not outdated. But there are specific communications requirements as new technology is developed. 

“A higher frequency and larger bandwidth would be necessary if a newer ship needed to transfer live pictures or videos, which require a very high data rate and low latency communication for any changes. They also need to be secure to prevent enemies from using this against our Navy,” Wang says. “But because frequency spectrum is limited, we don't want to create a huge system. We want to share the frequency band with one communication system.” 

Wang also plans to integrate new materials like ferromagnetic, a type of magnetism displayed by iron, to increase the tunability and frequency of antennas and other components for a wider tunability and more design flexibility. For example, instead of a frequency between 900 megahertz and 1.8 gigahertz (GHz), plans are to increase to 60 GHz.

Looking into the future, we hope for more opportunities to work with the ONR in adaptive and resilient wireless communications for the Navy and even for commercial applications.

- Guoan Wang

Since interference originates from other signals within different or neighboring frequency bands, Matolak will develop wireless channel modeling to ensure reliable communication from transmitter to receiver. This will help determine when the signal is transmitted and if interruption is possible. Meanwhile, Ali’s work will focus on 3D antennas and optical technology. 3D antennas, which are designed by solidifying liquid metal, are currently in demand for current and future wireless communication systems due to their high performance and reduced size. 

“We want to reduce the number of antennas and only have one that can work at different frequency bands and do the job of several antennas. We can also control when to switch the frequency band. If we can support at least two frequency bands, then we can reduce the antennas by half,” Wang says. 

Sur will utilize his expertise in millimeter-wave communications and networks to performing research inside an anechoic antenna chamber, which is a shielded room with radio-wave absorbing material on walls, ceilings and floors. The chamber will allow him to characterize the antenna’s properties.

“The antenna emits electromagnetic waves, and we need to shape those waves in a certain way, so it reaches users with optimal performance,” Sur says. “But before you can design an antenna or deploy it as a product, its performance needs to be characterized, and the anechoic chamber allows us to do this in a standalone fashion without the external environment affecting the performance itself.”     

When the project is completed later this year, Wang hopes that all the infrastructure built from his team’s work will boost and enhance the U.S. Navy’s performance and capabilities. 

“With our support, we can help enable the Navy with secure, resilient and wireless communication systems,” Wang says. “Looking into the future, we hope for more opportunities to work with the ONR in adaptive and resilient wireless communications for the Navy and even for commercial applications.” 

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