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New Salt Lake wireless test area designed to fuel innovations of the future

SALT LAKE CITY — With self-driving cars, unmanned drones and an explosion of internet-connected devices and appliances expected to soon add tens of thousands of new devices — every minute — to an already taxed wireless system, a new test bed in Salt Lake City could help pave the way for a faster, and safer, wire-free future.

Officials from the National Science Foundation, University of Utah, Rice University and the wireless industry jointly unveiled the Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research (POWDER) Monday at an event at the University of Utah.

When completed, the "living laboratory" will be the size of a small city and overseen by a partnership of academics, private industry and government entities.

University of Utah, College of Engineering
University of Utah, College of Engineering
Heather Tuttle, University of Utah, College of Engineering

U. President Ruth Watkins said the project continues the school's legacy of being a leader in high-tech development and innovation.

"The University of Utah has a long history as a tech hub and innovation hub," Watkins said. "Things like Atari, Pixar and Adobe … and we look forward to POWDER being the next in this succession."

The hardware and infrastructure to power up the network will cost $27.5 million and take around three years to complete, with financing coming from a $100 million budget that's half-funded by the National Science Foundation and half-funded by a consortium of private companies that comprise the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research group.

The 26-node network will cover about 2 square miles of the U.'s campus, a 1.2 square mile block of downtown Salt Lake City and a 2-mile corridor between the two quadrants. While it will be capable of handling a large volume of data at very fast speeds, it won't be accessible to, or used by, the general public.

The network will, however, be accessible to academic researchers, industry researchers and potentially private sector product developers to help create the next generation of wireless service provision, devices and hardware. Erwin Gianchandani, National Science Foundation deputy assistant director for Computer and Information Science Engineering, said the collaborative and inclusive nature of the project aims to corral the collective power of all who make use of it.

"It’s about convening all of these stakeholders to try and do bigger and better than any of us could do individually," Gianchandani said. "We really belive that platforms like POWDER … will have profound implications for science, for society and for our net national economic competitiveness and security for years and years to come."

U. professor Kobus Van der Merwe said one of the main challenges of building a test network of this scale is ensuring it is flexible enough to be useful to a wide range of researchers, who may be working on innovations in disparate areas like hardware, software or network solutions.

"We don’t really know yet exactly what (the research questions) are going to be, which makes this a really big challenge," Van der Merwe said. "This will be a very, very flexible platform that can be one thing today and something else tomorrow."

That's accomplished, Van der Merwe explained, by creating a completely programmable network with hardware that can be manipulated and modified easily by the open-source software that controls it. Also, the design allows for "bring-your-own-device" compatibility, so different research teams with their own hardware needs will be able to plug into the network.

Technology developed by a team from Rice University will help power the whole network, and super-high speed connectivity will be aided by the deployment of a large number of input/output antenna clusters within the test area. Whereas a typical cell tower my have just a handful of antennas, some of the nodes in the Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research test bed will be outfitted with scores of antennas.

Rice University professor Ashu Sabharwal, who helped developed the technology, said the approach will help turbo-charge the work of academic and industry innovators.

"Instead of four or eight antennas you see on typical cell towers, we’ll have hundreds of antennas," Sabharwal said. "Many orders of magnitude better than what we have today … and fully programmable and observable."

While speakers at Monday's event hesitated to offer predictions about specific research that may take place on the test bed, all noted that current technological developments like autonomous vehicles, unmanned drones and a growing plethora of wirelessly connected devices and appliances will only continue to advance with wireless technology that has the capacity and speed to keep up.

Also, the Salt Lake network, along with a similar test bed that will be installed in New York City, will offer the only at-scale testing environments that provide both realistic size, and conditions, for researchers to thoroughly vet new innovations.

Industry representative James Kimery from National Instruments said researchers have long been relying on simulations or small-scale test beds and expect the new, large-scale networks to be a game-changer.

"Being able to see concepts work in real world situations, in real world scenarios, are things that could not be accounted for in a simulation," Kimery said. "This is at-scale … and one of the critical parts of this test bed."

Gianchandani said he and his National Science Foundation colleagues were excited to see how the innovations seeded by the Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research network testing area will impact the future of technology.

"We can’t wait to see how this platform benefits the residents of Salt Lake City and the residents of this nation," Gianchandani said. "As we … continue to make our nation the innovation engine of the world."