HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The US Army is studying two methods to improve communications between its helicopter fleet and soldiers on the ground.

The Small Airborne Networking Radio (SANR) program would instantaneously transmit ground soldier location information to maps in cockpits overhead to minimize fratricide. Soldiers would be able to transmit target coordinates quickly for better air support, whereas today, a pilot will listen to coordinates and write them on a leg pad.

"We've got to get out of that, that's old technology we have now and we have to be smarter," said Maj. Gen. Daniel Hughes, is the ​program executive officer for command, control, communications-tactical (PEO C3T). "What we do now has to make sense financially and tea​chnically."

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The program is expected to draw offerings from more than a half-dozen radio manufacturers, some displayed at the Association of the US Army's convention here this week. Among them, Rockwell Collins showcased its TruNet, and Harris Corp. its Harris Airborne Multi-Channel Radio.

As envisioned, SANR would be a two-channel, software-defined radio that could carry voice and data via Soldier Radio Waveform (SRW), Wideband Networking Waveform (WNW) and the legacy Single Channel Ground and Airborne Radio System (SINCGARS), which transmits voice but not​ data only in a limited capacity.

The Army is expected to issue an RFP in 2016 followed by and migrate to ​source selection, flight tests and airborne integration and qualification, with a possible award in 2019, according to an industry source. It could take as long as 10 years to field all 7,000 aircraft.

SANR, which is funded in the president's proposed budget, will proceed in 2016. But the service is in the process of deciding on how to move ahead on its requirement for another data link for helicopters, Link 16.

Link 16 is a military tactical data exchange network used by the US and NATO nations. It supports the secure exchange of text messages and imagery, data, and provides two channels of digital voice.

The Army has already fielded an airborne radio that carries Link 16. Through a sole-source procurement in 2013, the Army selected a two-channel radio co-developed by ViaSat and Harris, the small tactical terminal, (STT) for the UH-60 ​AH-64E Apache helicopter.

The Army launched a Small Airborne Link 16 Terminal (SALT) program, intended only for the AH64E, though an anticipated request for proposals for SALT was put on hold while the Army determines whether it needs SALT in addition to SANR. A decision about how to proceed should be made soon.​whether the AH64E needs and SRW channel on the SALT or equivalent radio in addition to the SRW capability the SANR provides.

"Getting Link 16 into that aircraft is absolutely critical," Hughes said. "Whether we have Link 16 and SRW, the Army is looking at the requirement to make sure we have it right and we have a plan to go forward."

"You have SANR to all the helicopters and SALT to just the Apaches and you have solutions out there to give them the Link 16 capabilities," said Col. James Ross, project manager for tactical radios. "It's a matter of whether we go to the SALT program for that or another means the aviation community will be able to do."

The Army has been developing the SRW over the last few years, but has yet to field it in a wide variety of products or fulfill plans to deploy it across the Army, amid fluctuations in Army networking programs. At the same time, the Army has in recent years demonstrated in its Network Integration Evaluation exercises the use of its Rifleman Radio, which uses SRW, in helicopters.

As the Army proceeds with SANR, the players from the crowded radio market are expected to include BAE, Exelis, General Dynamics, Harris, Northrop Grumman, Rockwell Collins and Thales.

Rockwell Collins launched software-defined ground and airborne radios at the convention under the label TruNet. Rockwell, known for its airborne radio, the ARC-210/Talon, would offer a variant for SANR, company officials said.

Bob Esselborn, the company's account manager for ground tactical radios, said the company's its ​edge is its the company's ​expertise in porting software-defined radios, like the ARC-210. "Our engineers have been doing this for 10, 15 years and that allows us to be competitive," he said.

Ray Cerrato, Harris' senior manager for business development, Ray Cerrato, ​showed off its prototype Harris Airborne Multi-Channel Radio at the convention, touting the company's experience with WNW, as the contractor for SRW and as the manufacturer of the Falcon III AN/PRC-152, which supports SINCGARS.

"We're ready to go, we're ready to compete, and Harris is very strong in the waveform arena," Cerrato said.

Email: jgould@defensenews.com

Twitter: @reporterjoe