National Science Foundation brings four city-scale wireless test beds to life

The National Science Foundation is nearly done deploying four city-scale wireless test beds in locations across the country, giving researchers the opportunity to study radio-frequency challenges relevant to many federal agencies

The PAWR program has already completed the implementation of the “Cloud Enhanced Open Software-Defined Mobile Wireless Testbed” or COSMOS in New York City. COSMOS occupies a square mile in West Harlem, where the technical focus is on “ultra-high bandwidth and low latency wireless communications, with tightly coupled edge computing, a type of cloud computing that enables data processing at the edge of the network.”

In Salt Lake City, Utah, the NSF has deployed the aptly named “POWDER” testbed, which stands for “Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research.” The technical focus in Salt Lake City is broad and includes areas such as fifth-generation wireless networks, Radio Access Network (RAN) architectures, network orchestration models, and massive multiple-input, multiple-output (MIMO) networks.

More recently, the NSF and its partners completed the establishment of the “Aerial Experimentation and Research Platform for Advanced Wireless” platform, or AERPAW, just outside of Raleigh, North Carolina. NSF says AERPAW is a “first-of-its-kind” experimental platform aimed at accelerating the integration of unmanned aerial systems into national airspace.

Researchers there also want to test the potential of using UAS for wireless connectivity, such as flying base stations that can provide a hotspot in the sky.

Meanwhile, the PAWR program in Ames, Iowa, is implementing the ARA platform. The goal of ARA is to test wireless connectivity in a rural environment, especially with use cases such as precision farming.

Murat Turlock, program director of the NSF’s Division of Computer and Networking Systems, says researchers are using the flexibility of the testbeds to explore new concepts using existing systems. He said the test beds are fully programmable and can be reconfigured according to the researcher’s need.

“If you look at the problems of wireless communication, it’s almost like designing the next generation of computer chips using computers built with existing chips,” Turlock said.

For example, at the COSMOS platform in New York City, researchers are testing the best way to deploy a millimeter wave network in a dense, urban environment.

“They need to understand how the signal propagates through the air or buildings,” Turlock said. “That insight will enable the designers to come up with a better design and deliver services that may not have been available before: high-speed internet access, availability of the connection at different locations within the buildings or outside the buildings. So there are many scenarios that the researcher more or less has to understand and introduce into the design process.”

The PAWR program is supported by approximately $100 million in funding, with contributions from both the NSF and an industry consortium of approximately 30 companies. The test beds are set up near local universities. And Turlock said other agencies have also become involved in research on the testbeds, including the Department of Defense.

In North Carolina, the AERPAW platform gives researchers the chance to test out a concept of the “National Radio Dynamic Zone,” where different users of the electromagnetic spectrum can “coexist peacefully,” Turlock said. The issue of spectrum management is becoming increasingly important as more users seek to access similar or the same radio frequencies.

“The spectrum is a natural resource,” Turlock said. “So we have to, the whole community as a nation, we probably have to learn how to best utilize this resource.”


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