North Carolina State University will be the new home of a National Science Foundation-funded center to study the implementation of advance wireless infrastructure and drones, the university said Wednesday.
The center, which will receive millions of dollars from NSF and a private industry consortium, will study how to use 5G wireless connections to improve the capabilities of drones.
This is the third center in the U.S. that NSF has announced. Last year, it unveiled New York City and Salt Lake City as homes for two areas of study around advanced wireless.
The goal of the NSF’s funding is to make sure that the U.S. maintains leadership in the technology, which is seen as a game changer for wireless infrastructure. In total, NSF and wireless industry partners plan to invest $100 million over the next seven years to build specialized infrastructure to increase speed and capacity.
NSF will invest $9 million over the next five years and the consortium of private companies is contributing $15 million to N.C. State. The center will be housed on the university’s Centennial Campus.
Just like the previous generations of cell-network technology, 5G promises vast improvements in speed and bandwidth. That could mean something as simple as replacing wired home broadband with wireless broadband to making automated cars a reality, The Wall Street Journal has reported. Because of its speed, 5G promises to create huge leaps in the capabilities of internet-connected devices.
Hence, the focus on how it could be used with drones at the new N.C. State center.
N.C. State will lead the center — and the university will work with other academic institutions as well as private businesses to implement the technology in the real world.
The process to win the center began over a year ago and involved stiff competition with other cities and universities. What set N.C. State apart, Chancellor Randy Woodson said in an interview, was its deep connections with surrounding municipalities, like Raleigh and Cary.
“One of the things that N.C. State does is it brings partners to the table,” Woodson said. “This is one of those grants that you can’t win unless you have city partners and people that can use the technology that you are able to work with. ... We know how to work with the private sector, we know how to work with the public sector, so we can bring the critical partners together that the National Science Foundation wanted.”
The center will work with both Raleigh and Cary to test drones in real world situations.
By using those cities as training grounds — as well as an N.C. State-owned farm and Lake Wheeler — the university can simulate a wide variety of landscapes that a drone might need to operate.
Potential areas of study for the center could include things, like flying drones beyond line of sight; using drones as portable 5G wireless towers in disaster areas; safely delivering healthcare and commercial products; and integrating drones in smart agriculture applications.
Ismail Guvenc, the lead investigator for the center, said that applications around flying drones out of sight will be key.
“You need to be in visual line of sight of a drone” to fly one currently, he said. “To enable major use cases — like delivery or public safety or inspection — that requires you to go beyond line of sight.”
“How do you make drones that fly out of visual line of sight?” he added. “You have to connect it to cell towers, but they are designed to serve ground users not drones. So we have to test for that.”
Woodson said that the potential economic impact of breakthroughs made at the center could be huge.
“We are all struggling with how are we going to monitor and control drones that are flying through the airspace,” he said. “The only way you can do that is to have them connected to a system of communication. ... so 5G is the only way right now we can envision air traffic with drones involved.”
The center is expected to be up and running by December, with a goal that it will be testing new technologies in the field starting next September.
This story was produced with financial support from a coalition of partners led by Innovate Raleigh as part of an independent journalism fellowship program. The N&O maintains full editorial control of the work. Learn more; go to bit.ly/newsinnovate