Updated: May 11
Fenix Group to Deliver Portable C2 Tech to California Guard
Chantilly, Virginia-based Fenix Group Inc. was recently awarded a contract via Nokia Corporation and the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to deliver citizen broadband radio service (CBRS) private cellular backpacks to the California National Guard to provide resilient communications during disaster response. It will solve the command and control (C2) problem in disaster and austere environments, and get drones flying on a common network.
In the past few years, natural disasters, particularly wildland fires, have ravaged the globe. According to the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), in 2020, wildfires consumed more than 10 million acres of land in the United States alone. Every year, thousands of Soldiers and Airmen of the National Guard get called up to help state and local firefighters and police battle the flames to save lives and property.The California Air Guard has a history of using drones to provide the state’s Department of Forestry and Fire Protection agency with up-to-date incident awareness and assessment to battle wildfires.
“We’re able to provide real-time eyes on in any area where the fire’s at,” said Air Force Maj. Nicholas Edwards, intelligence analyst manager in an interview for DoD News. “We can provide information to where CAL FIRE can direct resources. We give information to the decision makers in a timely manner. “We can provide information to where CAL FIRE can direct resources. We give information to the decision makers in a timely manner.”
Large drones, such as those used by the California Air National Guard‘s 195th Airlift Wing are flown at remote operations centers. Smaller drones, which provide additional capabilities, rely on cellular communications.
Yet many of these disasters leave responders without available or reliable cellular service, due to either non-existent or inoperable infrastructure in the operations area. This exacerbates the challenges of recovery efforts.
The Fenix Group, composed of former special operations forces operators, intelligence community professionals, and multi-discipline engineers, has lashed up with Nokia and DIU to help solve the command and control (C2) problem in these difficult environments. Its flagship tactical communication products, the man-packable Banshee Tactical Radio (BTR) system that can connect up to 256 end users, and the vehicle borne Banshee Mobile Radio (BMR) that connects up to 800, are battle tested and proven. The radios utilize both cellular connectivity and an integrated Mobile Ad-Hoc Network (MANET) style radio, which allows them to be meshed together, along with embedded computers for “edge cloud” services.
The company’s newest concept, the Mobile Robotic LTE Network (MRLN, pronounced “Merlin”), connects drones, internet of things (IoT) sensors and other robots, to these same radios, as well as to the personnel on the system, to deliver full spectrum response capabilities. Together, these products provide an independent and resilient meshed hub-and-spoke network that integrates multi-modal communications systems and edge computing into a single device which Fenix has dubbed the “Battlefield of Things” (BoT). Its patented edge networks provide for highly available, survivable, and secure 4G and 5G broadband, capable of serving hundreds of users per node.
The Fenix team plans for the BoT to become the keystone component of Cal Guard disaster response concept of operations (CONOPs). Fenix CEO and Co-Founder David Peterson explained, “When the Guard arrives, they need to be able to quickly provide communications between themselves, firefighters, and any other first responders who may have a phone in their pocket, with drones and other IoT devices. Yet there will likely be no internet or cell service. Fenix builds to this solution.”
He continued, “Using our BMR or BTR, personnel with cell phones can connect to our standalone system and communicate with each other. They can also integrate drones, ground robots, sensors, or anything with a cellular modem with this system.”
Fenix’s Senior Robotics Engineer, Savanna Horan, who created MRLN, explained, “Let’s assume a natural disaster has occurred and the roads are blocked, power is out or shut off for safety and all the phone towers are down. The National Guard wants to send a smaller drone into an obstructed area to find people. The drone pilot can use our system to fly the drone and instantly share the video with everyone on the network for situational awareness.”
Using Fenix’ system, a drone equipped with microphones could allow two-way communications with disaster victims and first responders. It could also deliver equipment, medical supplies or radios to the scene.
Horan said, “Connectivity is the way we do life. In a dangerous or emergency situation, just being able to talk to someone can deliver hope and information and can help someone survive, not to mention actually delivering needed supplies.”
Although Fenix has traditionally focused on the defense and three-letter federal agencies, its C2 solution can be used across the full spectrum of civil and commercial use cases, in any area where communications links are down or do not exist, or where there is a need for a private fully controlled and secure communications system.
Horan noted, “This could be used by conservationists. Think of poaching or illegal fishing and logging that occurs all over the world. The people who patrol these areas do the best they can, but they are usually outmanned by the bad guys. If a system like MRLN was in place, it could amplify what they are able to do by giving them more information, including data from a drone, that could proliferate to others.”
She said that the critical infrastructure market including the oil, gas and petrochemical industries, which are increasingly using drones in their operations, could also greatly benefit from Fenix’s technology.
The company’s next big release, which will make its C2 system even more attractive to the commercial crowd, is its upcoming TALON MANET radio. TALON is a small but mighty mesh style radio that can be attached to an end user device to allow communications to continue between it and other devices on the Fenix net.
Horan elaborated, “In a traditional cellular radio network, the radio is the hub and the end users are spokes who can all communicate with each other, but data has to go through the radio hub. With this new mesh layer connecting end user devices directly, even if the hub radio goes down, is blocked or otherwise disconnected, MRLN allows end users to continue to communicate.”
The company plans to bring TALON to market by the end of the third quarter this year. CEO Peterson said, “We are constantly pushing the envelope on how we deliver cutting edge communications and connectivity across all market sectors. This newest deployment of MRLN, BTR and BMR with the California Guard is a natural progression from our successful deployments downrange to the domestic environment. The Talon will take drone operations to a whole new level of connectivity due to its size, weight and power, and very low cost.”