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US Ignite Announces North Carolina Wireless Testbed

North Carolina State University has been named as the site of a new next-gen communications research center, funded in part by the National Science Foundation. The center will focus on drone and autonomous vehicle work.

Research into the next-generation communications needed to guide drones and autonomous vehicles will establish a foothold in North Carolina’s Research Triangle.

North Carolina State University in Raleigh will soon be the home of the Aerial Experimentation and Research Platform for Advanced Wireless — known as “AERPAW.” The regional testbed facility is part of a larger network of wireless research by the National Science Foundation (NSF) in its Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, in coordination with US Ignite, a nonprofit charged with growing smart city projects in communities across the country.

AERPAW is the third PAWR testbed project, following New York City and Salt Lake City. A fourth citywide wireless testbed will be announced at a later date.

The focus of the new site will be on applications for high-speed wireless communications serving areas like disaster and emergency response, logistics and transportation for unmanned aircraft and autonomous vehicles.

“The drone piece is kind of an interesting idea. It allows you to connect the fact that you’re flying drones. You’re up in the air. You’re highly mobile, and [have] the wireless needed to support it,” said Marc Hoit, vice chancellor for IT at North Carolina State University.

Drone technology can help to expand the reach of advanced wireless communications, which can aid responses following a natural disaster or other applications where drones are effective.

“This is an experimental laboratory, essentially,” Hoit explained. “So the research aspects are not really the level of research most people think about. It’s really a platform, or a laboratory that other people who want to test their equipment, test their ideas, do more National Science Foundation research or industry based research, they can come use this to validate those ideas.”

NC State will design, operate and maintain the facility. Some portion of the hardware for the research facility should be ready and available to use in the next year, with a three-year total completion timeframe.

The test facility at NCSU will be a “one-stop shop for people all over the country,” said Joe Kochan, chief operating officer at US Ignite. “Whether they are academic researchers funded and supported by the National Science Foundation, or corporate researchers from one of over 30 companies in our industry consortium, or innovators and entrepreneurs looking for a place to test out a new idea, they’ll be able to take their concept from the lab and try it out in real life.”

NC State was selected as the next location for the PAWR program based on a range of criteria including the region’s already-in-place fiber-optic communications infrastructure and well-formed relationships built across the numerous technology interests strewn throughout the Research Triangle. Other partners on the project include the North Carolina Department of Transportation and the Wireless Research Center in Wake Forest, which tests wireless signals for the wireless industry.

US Ignite required that the research team first coordinate with the municipality they exist within, and “get them on board,” said Kochan.

“There are elements of the community that are specifically signed on to be contributing partners, members, or joint operators and other things of these platforms,” said Kochan. “Not only was that a requirement, but it was a critical point of the evaluation, how well had you integrated yourself with the local community, and brought to bear not only the resources of your institution..."

The NSF will fund the PAWR program with $50 million over the next seven years, while the 30-member PAWR Industry Consortium has committed another $50 million in cash and in-kind contributions.

The testbeds in Salt Lake City and the West Harlem neighborhood in New York were recently named "Innovation Zones" by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The designation expands their area of operations, "allowing researchers to experiment in multiple locations and frequencies under a single license award," according to a US Ignite press release. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.