DARPA contest seeks better use of crowded spectrum

Smartphone in hand

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency is hoping conflict and cooperation among the contestants in its Spectrum Challenge smart radio competition will produce better ways to share increasingly congested spectrum resources.

The aim of the contest, which kicked off early in 2013, is to find ways to develop radio technology that allows the largest number of users in a busy, cramped spectrum environment, but allow priority traffic to flow without disruption. DARPA announced 15 of the 18 semifinalist teams on June 18, drawing from a pool of 90 registered teams. It will fill three wildcard slots in August.

The agency has developed two separate tracks for contestants to follow, one competitive and one cooperative. Teams in the competition are allowed to evade, jam or control competitors' signals while managing environmental obstacles, said DARPA. Contestants have to play both offense and defense to get their files transmitted fastest. This match would test conditions most applicable to military communications.

In the other track, the most effective collaboration will win. Teams will have to work together to transmit all three of their files in the shortest time despite environmental obstacles, said DARPA and they can't coordinate in advance on how to share spectrum. The event tests conditions potentially helpful for coalition communications, but also for future commercial applications.

The semifinals for the 18 teams will take place in September at DARPA's offices in Arlington, Va. They will consist of two separate events, with the winner of each event taking home $25,000.

The September semifinals will require teams to transfer the same file between a source radio and a destination radio. All teams would have to share five MHz of bandwidth, forcing teams' signals to overlap. DARPA will provide all teams with the same hardware and data, enabling each to win or lose based on their software algorithms alone.

Ultimately, when the Challenge is completed next year, $150,000 in prize money will have been distributed among the winners, according to the agency.

"Here's the question: Can we design smart radios that figure out how to share spectrum and get signals through without users coordinating first?" said Yiftach Eisenberg, DARPA program manager heading the competition. "We want competitors to design programmable radios that can sense their immediate spectrum environment. Those radios then must dynamically and automatically adapt their transmissions to account for dynamic users in dynamic environments."

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.

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