AT&T and Lockheed Martin test private 5G for helicopter data

When military helicopters evacuate troops from combat zones, ground crews read aircraft-generated data to ensure the choppers are operating safely. AT&T and Lockheed Martin want the U.S. military to use 5G to transmit this data, and the companies have created a proof of concept to demonstrate the potential.

Lockheed Martin’s Black Hawk UH-60M helicopter includes an integrated system to monitor and manage the plane’s performance using hundreds of on-board sensors that monitor the airframe, engines and other dynamic components. The data this system generates is stored on a small hard drive in the plane. The companies said crews typically spend about half an hour removing the cartridge from the plane, walking it to an operations center and extracting the data.

The PoC showed that with 5G, the data can be transmitted as soon as the cartridge is removed, reducing the total time to 5 minutes. “The data cartridge is put into a laptop which connects to a private 5G radio antenna node,” explained Col. Lance Spencer, who served in the U.S. Air Force for 25 years before taking over AT&T’s defense business.  Spencer said the radio antenna node is pointed at the flight line, where aircraft are serviced. It connects to a Cradlepoint 5G gateway, which is cabled to the laptop.

AT&T installed the 39 GHz 5G radio at Lockheed Martin’s Sikorsky headquarters in Stratford, Connecticut. It also installed a multi-access edge compute (MEC) server, which collected data from the radio and sent it to Lockheed Martin’s servers in Stratford.

Across the country in Littleton, Colorado, Lockheed Martin is testing 5G in a system the defense giant calls 5G.MIL, which integrates 5G with military communications to connect battlefield assets. In a separate test, AT&T transmitted data from its Sikorsky private 5G network through a VPN to the 5G.MIL network in Colorado. This was the first test of interoperability between an AT&T private 5G network and Lockheed Martin’s 5G.MIL.

“We’re collaborating on our own behalf to understand the military problems that need to be solved,” said Spencer, adding that he hopes more companies will participate in trials that leverage the AT&T network for military communications. “The door is wide open,” he said.

“In collaboration with commercial 5G leaders, an interoperable 5G.MIL multi-site, multi-vendor network is another step closer to reality,” said Dan Rice, vice president of 5G.MIL programs at Lockheed Martin, in a press release. He said the 5G capabilities tested in Stratford and Littleton could “enable high-speed, secure-data transfer on virtually any flight line" if deployed at scale.

AT&T's Spencer said the carrier has an edge when it comes to providing a communications platform for defense operations, because of its FirstNet experience and relationships. “A lot of use cases for first responders apply to the military,” he explained.

Timely and secure transfer and analysis of mission and operations data is just one 5G use case AT&T is exploring for the military. The carrier is also installing 5G and MEC at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School in Monterrey, California, where it hopes to connect unmanned vehicles, submarines and planes using mmWave. At Naval Base Coronado in San Diego, AT&T is using 5G to connect assets in a Department of Defense smart warehouse trial.