Most white-collar workers cannot fathom operating without routine emails or news updates via a smartphone for even a few minutes, let alone an hour or more.

But, U.S. Marine Corps troops on aircraft en route to potentially dangerous landing zones for missions have to do just that, and in dire situations. Essentially, they fly blind, equipped with a set of mission plans that does not include live updates. And, they are doing this despite an unprecedented amount of data collection by unmanned aircraft and infrared missile-warning and targeting-pod systems proliferating around the battlespace.

Service officials intend to change that dynamic by fielding a new communications gateway onboard the MV-22 by early next year. It will allow the aircrew onboard the tiltrotor and troops flying in the back to have improved, real-time situational awareness for missions.

This is the latest nontraditional use of the tiltrotor troop and cargo hauler, 360 of which are being purchased by the service. Already, the Marine Corps has begun trials to test the Bell/Boeing MV-22's aerial refueling capability, allowing for the service to pass fuel to other attack and assault support aircraft, potentially without relying on land-based KC-130s.

The gateway project is an interim step, however. Ultimately, the Marine Corps wants to place a Software Reprogrammable Payload (SRP) radio set on all V-22s, with an eye toward eventually outfitting the entire aviation fleet. The ultimate plan calls for these radios to support an airborne network designed to link aviators and troops—those on the ground or riding in the back of airborne platforms—to real-time information on the battlefield.

In the meantime, the Corps is conducting the second major test of the interim gateway this month during a series of Marine Air Ground Task Force (MAGTF) trials at a Weapons and Tactics Instructor course at Marine Corps AS, Yuma, Ariz. The first took place during a similar course in April, says Maj. Sam Clark, a pilot for VMX-22, an operational test and evaluation squadron operating the Osprey.

He participated in the trials; they were a first-of-a-kind test for the V-22 and were used to demonstrate that the tiltrotor can function as a node on a larger network.

The V-22 is an ideal platform for fielding both the interim and eventual SRP equipment because it is slated for wide use by Marine Expeditionary Units, small groups of personnel who operate onboard amphibious ships around the globe. Additionally, the aircraft is large enough for integration of various antennas needed for the many waveforms used by SRP.

The interim solution makes use of a hardware box originally developed to carry the Directed Infrared Countermeasures (Dircm) system, and outfitted with a variety of radios capable of communicating in various waveforms to create the gateway.

This is not unlike the Battlefield Airborne Communications Node (BACN) system hastily fielded by the U.S. Air Force on the Bombardier BD-700 and Northrop Grumman Global Hawk Block 20 aircraft to support operations in Afghanistan.

“What the Marine Corps is looking for is a more cost-effective, cost-efficient and more expeditionary method of something like that,” says Maj. Shawn Hoewing, lead officer for the Corps on this initiative. BACN “takes up the entire aircraft. We have condensed it down to one of each type of radio and then [added] the gateway software that allows you to do the message translation.”

Hoewing says the service plans this month to test a variety of functions using the interim gateway solution, including remote control of an unmanned aircraft sensor. Separately, last spring, operators also demonstrated remote control of an electronic warfare payload hosted in the gateway box; the controller was in California while the aircraft was flying in Arizona. During the April trials, situational awareness data provided through the gateway was available only to pilots in the Osprey's cockpit; this month, the tests will feature a tablet interface that can be passed to a troop commander in the back of the aircraft. This will provide data to enhance mission-planning en route.

The Marine Corps plans to field six of these gateways to a single Marine Expeditionary Unit early next year, Hoewing notes.

In the meantime, fielding of a more elegant SRP system is in the works. “The idea is to do this concurrently, so there is no gap in capability,” Hoewing says. With the gateway, the Marines hosted radios employing different waveforms—such as Link 16, TTNT and voice—in a single box on the aircraft. SRP would take that a step further by removing the individual radios and replacing them with a software reprogrammable system. He acknowledges SRP has a “sordid past,” having begun as an Office of Naval Research project to field an electronic warfare (EW) system. As an EW program, SRP “didn't give you enough bang for your buck.”

Earlier this year, the service refocused the program on serving as a communications node. “In the future, that is one box that hosts all of those waveforms,” Hoewing says. “A lot of people have software-defined radios. Generally, what they bring is the ability to carry one waveform at a time. . . . Having a multimodule, multiwaveform system capable of simultaneous operations—that is where it is key. When you include in there the gateway capability, now you are doing the translation for someone else when you arrive on the scene.”

With SRP, the Marines envision the V-22 and CH-53E (which is the second candidate platform) as nodes to pass information among fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft and troops on the ground.

This would allow a task force in the back of a V-22 to view a landing zone as imaged by the CH-53's infrared Dircm sensors, as an example, Hoewing says. It provides troops with real-time imagery of a landing zone to allow for necessary replanning en route. This could also allow for an intelligence analyst to retask an unmanned aircraft or its sensor from a desk miles away from its flightpath.

The Marines plan to begin fielding SRP to the V-22 fleet in 2016, after test and evaluation demonstrations in 2015, Hoewing says. Various spirals are envisioned, each incorporating more capability and various waveforms. The effort is expected to cost about $20 million for 30 months of development since the restructuring this year. SRP is slated for delivery as a federated system with its own display initially; MV-22s would have it integrated into the multifunction displays already on the aircraft during routine overhauls.

Ultimately, Hoewing says, the Marines envision engaging industry to develop iPhone-like applications for such functions as remote-sensor tasking or radio-frequency identification tagging of soldiers and equipment.