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Cognitive radio: Public safety’s communication solution?

Written by Stephenie Slahor

Cognitive radio may sound like something straight out of science fiction, but it is reality. It’s a radio that has the “cognition” to recognize where the communication is, and it adjusts itself to communicate. With all the emphasis on designing 800 MHz or 700 MHz systems to “cover the nation,” maybe cognitive radio can do the work of communications without the need for billions of dollars spent on new infrastructure and shifts to new systems.

A panel at the recent International Wireless Communications Expo (IWCE) explored the thought and discussed what might be a workable solution for communications among public service agencies.

Participating on the panel were: Sean O’Hara, manager, Communi-cations Systems, Syracuse Research Corp.; John Powell, NPSTC Committee, SDR chairman; Steve Nichols, Thales Communications; Fred Frantz, director, Law Enforcement Programs, L-3 Communications Government Services Inc.; and Tom Sorley, deputy director of Information Technology for the city of Houston, and NPSTC Committee chairman.

O’Hara said cognitive radio can sense and react to adapt its program modulation. It has an artificial intelligence to “understand” its environment and what the user desires. Powell said the computer within the cognitive radio is programmed to sense which path in the radio is moving information. It then selects the appropriate spectrum and modulation needed. As software-defined radio, when normal channels are blocked, the cognitive radio finds new channels and collects others it wants to “talk to.” Sorley said cognitive radio is “seamless” to the user, and it has a lot of promise toward achieving interoperability through spectrum sharing.

The U.S. military is already examining some of the implications cognitive radio might have, and that research will certainly find its way to public safety agencies in the near future. Nichols said much of the military’s interest comes from the need for going to many different places in the world and having to adapt to frequencies and modulations. He added that the military certainly has the funds for such research, but the findings will “trickle down” to other applications, including public safety.

Powell said, “The user must be smart enough to understand what the change means,” when the cognitive radio works. For example, video from one incident could be more or less important at another incident. The radio does its work, but the user decides on the appropriateness of what is being accessed.

“There is a lot of technology that’s out there that could be beneficial, but we must make sure it’s not technology for technology’s sake,” Frantz said. A simpler solution, such as cognitive radio, might be more beneficial to problem solving—and to the budget.

O’Hara added that multimedia radios will be common in the future, and Powell agreed, saying that expos such as IWCE will have a “completely different floor” of exhibits in just three years. Adaptive devices, such as cognitive radios, will be common. Sorley said in three to five years, there will be a “whole different system” than the ones being built today.

Could there be a paradigm shift coming because of cognitive radio? Nichols believes that could very well be. Instead of putting the focus on networks and systems, planners (and budgets) might see the worth of SDR / cognitive radios. He thinks such products are going to be considered as solutions instead of going with all new bands and modes in new networks. Although not the “silver bullet” that will solve everything, cognitive radios do offer a practical and affordable approach to communications, and they do achieve that all-important, desirable quality of interoperability. Companies that make multimedia products may not agree, Nichols said, but companies that do make portables and mobiles have the business model that would support using cognitive radios as a solution to interoperability.

Time will tell, of course, but Nichols said, “Some things may make more sense than others.”

Public safety users already have familiarity with radios and use them on a daily basis. If an emergency occurs, Nichols said, why have to worry about the “super switch” or communications van, or “patch” that will get everyone connected, when cognitive radios will do the job with a device users are already familiar with—the handheld radio.

Stephenie Slahor, Ph.D., is a lawyer who writes in the fields of law enforcement and security. She can be reached at drss12@msn.com.

Published in Public Safety IT, May/Jun 2008

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