DARPA launches a project to fix a persistent battlefield communications problem

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Battlefield networks that reconfigure themselves to maintain communications even in contested environments – that’s what a new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) contracting opportunity is all about. It seeks a control layer that works by itself, so warfighters have less distraction. For the details, Program Manager Mary Schurgot spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Dr. Schurgot, good to have you on.

Mary Schurgot: Hi, Tom. Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: So tell us about this program that you have going, what is the goal of – it’s called the Mission-Integrated Network Control (MINC) – what problem you’re trying to solve here?

Mary Schurgot: You got it, yeah, MINC – at a very high level – is about getting the right data to the right user at the right time. And what we’ve done is dissected that into three subproblems. So the first subproblem is about discovering network resources that would allow us to compose the network to get that data to the user. And then the second focus area is about knowing how to configure those networks to enable that path to get the data to the right user. And then lastly, we take a mission-integrated approach to the system composition. So from a mission perspective, how do we map those mission objectives to network objectives that allow us to compose that network and orchestrate that network?

Tom Temin: So the implication is that in a given situation, and given military situation, there are many ways for the water of data to flow, you just have to make sure they all stay connected, even though they might not be the same network.

Mary Schurgot: Exactly, I really like that analogy. So with MINC it’s not only you know how much water should flow through the network, but what are the individual components on how to connect that network together and to tune those control parameters associated with those network resources.

Tom Temin: So is the problem, then, that there might be many alternate ways of getting the communications needed from point A to point B in a battle situation, but it’s that the people involved, the warfighters, have to manually reconfigure constantly and that’s a distraction?

Mary Schurgot: Yes, having to manually reconfigure, having to initially configure a network based on mission needs is very challenging and cumbersome to the warfighter. MINC would allow for adaptation and flexibility even once the underlying network has been deployed.

Tom Temin: So you’re not looking to develop a network but looking to develop some kind of an orchestration or control layer for a series of networks.

Mary Schurgot: Exactly. So within MINC we constrain ourselves to the existing networks that are out there, including legacy systems. We want to make better use of the legacy systems and networks in order to achieve mission objectives.

Tom Temin: So from the warfighter standpoint, they just know that they can keep talking or communicating. And they don’t have to worry about broken connections because this system MINC will take over and make sure that the word gets through.

Mary Schurgot: Exactly and what’s a little unique about MINC is it can also recommend movement of communications assets. So your to your point earlier you can be in a situation where there are many possible paths to take or on the – at the other end of the spectrum not having enough paths. So the the MINC system could recommend to the operator or the warfighter to move a particular communications asset to a particular location to enable that connectivity.

Tom Temin: Yeah, so a little predictive components so that you don’t go blank for a while while the reconfiguration goes on.

Mary Schurgot: Yeah, you got it. You know, there’s certainly a predictability and forecasting component to MINC.

Tom Temin: And just as a side question, there is an overarching network architecture that DARPA is pursuing called Mosaic. Just briefly, what is Mosaic and how does the MINC program you’re working on fit into the Mosaic?

Mary Schurgot: Right. So Mosaic Warfare is an overarching concept within DARPA. It’s really getting away from tightly integrated, brittle systems of systems to adaptive flexible systems of systems. Just as the name implies, you’re going away from a tightly integrated jigsaw puzzle, to a mosaic where you can bring together warfighting capabilities more flexibly, and then the MINC program fits within this portfolio, addressing the networking and communications aspect of Mosaic.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Dr. Mary Schurgot, she’s a program manager in the Strategic Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). And you also mentioned in the literature connected to this – software-defined networks. I guess that’s kind of necessary for a network or a series of networks to be able to be reconfigured, they have to be software-defined in the first place?

Mary Schurgot: Yes, those software-defined networking comes from the commercial world, and it’s a concept that allows for network programmability and reprogramability. It really streamlines the management of networks. So as the demands on a network change, the network can be easily reprogrammed to meet those demands. So within MINC we employ this model. In contrast, we really have to reimagine software-defined networking within the main context. Because in contrast to the commercial networks, or in contrast to commercial networks, MINC has to deal with heterogeneous radios, heterogeneous networks and heterogeneous protocols. Whereas with commercial networks, those standards and protocols are very well defined.

Tom Temin: Sure. So basically, MINC and Mosaic are designed for messy environments.

Mary Schurgot: Yes, with the Mosaic concepts we can bring in optionality and diversity and adaptability.

Tom Temin: And from a program standpoint, it looks like from the SAM.gov listing, that you are going to contract route to come up with this MINC program. Why a contract and not grants and have a bunch of people compete on it?

Mary Schurgot: So the broad agency announcement for MINC is out currently, as you as you just mentioned. MINC is really viewed as a systems program. So at this point, we don’t envision MINC being a fundamental research program. But we are highly encouraging teaming amongst academia, commercial and defense, including small businesses. MINC is really bringing together many different technologies, where a diverse set of performers will really be needed.

Tom Temin: Is there anything commercial that exists that emulates this, or that looks somewhat like MINC? Because I imagine some of the big content distributors or whatever, must have self healing and readjusting networks to keep their service levels up.

Mary Schurgot: Right. And we talked about software-defined networking already. There are additional concepts from the commercial space. Another one I like to point to is something called intent-driven, or intent-based networking. So with intent-driven networking, from the commercial space, the idea is to go from a business objective or a business intent. And then autonomously be able to configure your network based on that business objective. Within MINC, again, we want to reimagine some of these commercial concepts. And within the intent-driven networking concept, really think about intent as mission intent. So how can we go from mission objectives to network objectives? And certainly the commercial sector would help inform that.

Tom Temin: It sounds like this could lead to perhaps a system where cell phone calls don’t get dropped all the time.

Mary Schurgot: Yes, ideally.

Tom Temin: Right, well, we can always hope. And in the meantime, what’s your timeline for this? When do you expect to have something tangible?

Mary Schurgot: Right, so the – as I mentioned the [broad agency announcement] is out now. We’re eagerly awaiting the proposals to come back at the end of June of 2021, and then we’ll get the program kicked off in FY21, FY22. And then it will be a four-year program.

Tom Temin: And who evaluates the proposals? Does this take place entirely within DARPA? Or do you bring in a grizzled old radio operator to maybe help you?

Mary Schurgot: Yeah, we get a team of subject matter experts. So we evaluate the proposals within DARPA and bring in teams of reviewers.

Tom Temin: All right, Mary Schurgot is a program manager in the Strategic Technology Office at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. Thanks so much for joining me.

Mary Schurgot: Thanks, Tom.

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