Air Force software turns warplanes into wireless routers in the sky

An American soldier stands guard after the arrival of a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane with French troops at the airport in Bamako January 22, 2013. Credit: REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

A software upgrade called Net-T effectively turns U.S. military aircraft into giant airborne wireless routers, allowing ground forces to share information with each other and with their allies overhead.

[MORE AIRBORNE WI-FI: Wi-Fi on airplanes: the next frontier in mobile civility...or incivility] 

According to an official announcement, the Net-T (or network tactical) software, which has just completed testing with the 40th Flight Test Squadron at Eglin Air Force Base in Florida, is an upgrade that can be applied to the LITENING and Sniper targeting systems - pods full of advanced cameras, sensors and communications equipment that can be carried by numerous U.S. Air Force planes.

What Net-T provides, the Air Force said, is the ability for ground forces to share data with each other via the Remotely Operated Video Enhanced Receiver 5 system, a small tablet that can be carried by troops in the field. Previously, ROVER-5 only allowed communication directly between troops on the ground and aircraft.

Using Net-T, commanders on the ground can share video data, map coordinates and a host of other information types without the use of traditional satellite or radio communication.

Net-T project test engineer Capt. Joseph Rojas said that this is a powerful new capability.

"The groups on the ground need 'line of sight' to the aircraft in the air, not each other. This opens up communication possibilities to support ground operations across all services," he said.

Maj. Olivia Elliott tested Net-T on the A-10 Thunderbolt II ground attack aircraft and said that the system doesn't require a lot of input from the pilot once it's properly configured.

"It's a single button push," she said. "After that, the pilot must maintain within the range of the Rover's transmitter and stay within view of the users. There's little to no interference with airborne operations of the targeting pod."

The Air Force said that, barring any major setbacks, Net-T could be in operational use by 2014.

Jon Gold is definitely going to bring this up the next time someone gives him guff about using his smartphone on an airplane. Email him at jgold@nww.com and follow him on Twitter at @NWWJonGold.

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This story, "Air Force software turns warplanes into wireless routers in the sky" was originally published by NetworkWorld.

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