Secure Wi-Fi Video On The Battlefield

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If you think streaming high-quality video wirelessly around a home or office is a challenging proposition, consider the obstacles involved in securely streaming high-def video on a battlefield or disaster site.

Fortress Technologies and Librestream claim to have overcome those challenges with a new product that integrates Fortress’s FIPS 140-2-certified ES210 mobile Wi-Fi Tactical Mesh Point and Librestream’s innovative OnSight handheld video collaboration device.

In doing so, they believe they can revolutionize the way soldiers in the field and emergency first-responders communicate and work with remote colleagues and controllers. The U.S. Marine Corps is already testing the system.

“The challenge that tactical military teams have to overcome is that their access to communications is always limited by what they can carry with them,” says Jeff Bradbury, Fortress’s vice president of marketing.

Carry on

The partners have overcome those constraints, he says, by coupling two very lightweight portable devices that together enable a tactical team to send multiple HD video streams (at 2.5 to 3 megabits per second each) over a multi-node local Wi-Fi mesh network.

The Librestream OnSight device is about the size and form factor of a digital single lens reflex (DSLR) camera. As well as streaming HD-quality video, OnSight can record video, and has a built-in VoIP capability. It also allows users at either end of a video call to freeze frames and use telestrator-like features to mark up and annotate live video.

“The reason we chose OnSight as one of the earliest candidates for partnering with the ES210 is that it puts a lot of capabilities in an individual’s hands,” Bradbury says of the Librestream device.

(While the relationship with Librestream and the specific integration with the ES210 is recent, the Fortress FIPS-compliant security technology also works on laptops and has been integrated into a variety of other devices, including barcode scanners and surveillance cameras.)

The Fortress ES210 Wi-Fi mesh access point is designed to be carried on a belt like a walky-talky. It’s small – 7 x 3.3 x 1.7 inches – and weighs only 2.1 lbs with battery. Typical throughput in the local network using multiple ES210s is 16 to 20 megabits per second (Mbps), Bradbury says.

“What we’re trying to highlight is that with a very, very small footprint, these [tactical] units could carry an organic broadband network – and then you tie that to this highly capable device. It’s a brand new [category].”

Secure communications

The Librestream device has been used mainly in industrial settings, to enable video collaboration between a work site and a remote office so experts can see a problem in real time and discuss it with on-site workers, and in telemedicine applications. The Librestream-Fortress product will enable exactly the same kind of collaboration in extreme situations.

One target market where Fortress claims to have already gained some traction is military emergency first responders, such as the Marine Corps’ Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF) and National Guard Units.

“The fact that it provides full-motion video is quite valuable when you’re trying to describe and assess a chaotic disaster situation,” Bradbury says. “Rather than trying to do it over a voice connection, you can actually show someone. So the ability to serve video is very, very valuable.”

The device’s other capabilities further enrich the collaboration. On-site personnel carrying the camera, or collaborators back at a command post, can mark directly on the screen to draw attention to parts of the scene. The recording and freeze-frame features allow them to review and assess sometimes fleeting visual input. And the built-in VoIP capability means field personnel don’t need to carry a second communications device.

The FIPS 140-2 network security and encryption technology, around which many of Fortress’s products are built, is a requirement for any federal government application, including the military, Bradbury points out. But it’s also essential for a couple of reasons in disaster, and even more so in military, situations.

In many disaster situations, infrastructure is non-existent or badly compromised. Once an emergency response unit sets up a network, especially if it manages to connect it to a backbone network, the risk is that others in the area will try to piggyback on it, potentially slowing or disrupting essential communications.

And in the case of battlefield and “man-made disaster” scenarios, it’s obviously crucial to keep communications confidential and out of the hands of the enemy.

Encrypt this

The need to encrypt the data does not impact streaming performance, Bradbury says. This is partly because of the way Fortress implements the technology – only encrypting data at the point it goes out on the network and not, as in some other systems, at each relay point. And it’s partly because the onboard processors in the OnSight device are powerful enough to use the Fortress encryption software without impacting core performance.

While the emergency first-responder market is big enough to justify developing the product, the larger military market is potentially huge. Fortress believes the technology could be used in every-day battlefield situations to equip “dismounted” soldiers – soldiers traveling in armored vehicles once they’ve left the protection of the vehicle.

“More and more, [the military] is recognizing they need more information in the field, more capability and more bandwidth to deliver that capability,” Bradbury says.

The idea is that dismounted soldiers could stream video of what they’re seeing back to the vehicle or to a command post so that officers can direct them and assess the situation on the ground. They could also talk over the VoIP connection. With a GPS option, the OnSight units would even allow commanders to track the location of troops.

While the military market is potentially huge, Bradbury notes, it’s also very slow moving. Still, he believes word will spread about the capabilities of the Fortress-Librestream product and prospective users will begin to see additional applications.

Bradbury doesn’t actually say it, but the message is clear: this is a product that could save lives and reduce battlefield casualties.