Air Force tests improved GPS radio

In the four years since fighter pilot Scott O'Grady's plane was shot down by the Serbian Army over Bosnia, forcing him to spend days hiding behind enemy lines waiting for rescuers, the Air Force has been trying to develop a radio that could better use the Global Positioning System to rescue downed pilots faster.

The Air Force believes they may have found such a radio. It is now testing a handheld, GPS-based Combat Survivor Evader Locator (CSEL) radio, called the PRQ-7, which could change the way search and rescue is conducted.

The PRQ-7 is a two-way GPS radio that uses secure, worldwide communications. The PC-112, the radio that O'Grady used, could only send a signal one way, and rescuers had to be in line of sight of the radio to receive the signal.

Working with the Space and Missiles Systems Center at Los Angeles Air Force base, Boeing Co. produced the PRQ-7 to overcome these limitations. Using the PRQ-7, a search and rescue mission can reassure a survivor that help is coming, and the Air Force can reprogram the GPS radio system.

"It is a software radio, so we can upgrade the software to comply with any standards or communications that might evolve in the future," said Bruce Major, CSEL program manager at Boeing in Anaheim, Calif.The PRQ-7 is part of a larger CSEL satellite communications system under development. The system will include four worldwide base stations to receive, decrypt and send the highly secure and precise military-level GPS signals and a ground segment with command and control software for passing the signals.

"We're not just building a radio; we're building a communications system," said Lt. Col. Norm Albert, Air Force CSEL program manager at the Space and Missile Systems Center in El Segundo, Calif. "We want this system to be interoperable."

The handheld PRQ-7 provides integrated data and voice communications, including the ability to send wireless e-mail up to 40 characters long. Each radio costs $5,000 and is in limited production run now. Boeing plans to deliver 52,000 radios beginning in 2002.

The PRQ-7 is an example of a larger federal and commercial trend toward using handheld systems with integrated functionality.

"This is part of an emerging context in information technology—moving better quality information out to the point of work," said David Sonnen, president of Integrated Spatial Solutions Inc., a geographic information systems and GPS consulting firm in Blaine, Wash. "It's something this agency needs to do to meet its requirement and to be competitive."

-- Gerber is a free-lance writer based in Kingston, N.Y.

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