A Rural Broadband Laboratory

The National Science Foundation along with the US Department of Agriculture is creating a broadband testbed in and around Ames Iowa. The program is part of NSF’s Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program. This is the fourth wireless test site in the country and the first to be placed in a rural setting. The PAWR programs are a great example of public/private partnerships that to date have attracted over $100 million in private and government investments in research.

This project will provide an outdoor laboratory for engineers and scientists to explore ways to maximize the benefit of new wireless technologies for agriculture. Additionally, new technologies will be deployed throughout the college community of Ames.

The PAWR projects, to date, have included the participation of over 35 wireless providers and vendors. This project has already attracted the participation of several universities in addition to the  Iowa State University including the University of California at Irvine, and the Ohio State University. John Deere will be participating in the testbed along with U.S. Cellular, the Iowa Regional Utilities Association, and the Iowa Department of Transportation. The experiments will include participation from students from Iowa State as well as from local schools. Also participating will be Woodland Farms and the Meskwaki Tribal Nation.

Formal testbeds are always interesting because the FCC generally grants test licenses for scientists to experiment with radio frequencies in ways that may not be on the radar for the big carriers. The project includes $8 million to construct a wireless network that will cover nearly 600 square miles in and around Ames. One of the concepts to be explored is the collaboration potential and interaction between satellite broadband, existing wireless networks, and new wireless technologies.

Scientists will be experimenting with technologies involved in precision agriculture including drones, self-driving farm machinery, and an array of environmental sensors. One of the first experiments will involve identifying weeds for automatic eradication using high-resolution video. Field sensors will transmit live pictures to the cloud to allow for accurate identifications of weeds. Training robots to manually eliminate weeds would mean a drastic reduction in the use of herbicides in the food chain.

The project will also step outside of agriculture and look at technologies and applications that can expand wireless coverage in rural areas. This will involve experimenting with hybrid networks that use different frequencies and wireless technologies in unison to bring stronger broadband signals to the fields and areas where it is most needed.

These kinds of experimental sites are always interesting and exciting because ideas tested in programs like this end up as everyday technology a decade from now. Giving scientists and engineer a large outdoor laboratory provides them with a way to test ideas in ways that can’t be explored in the lab or in small testbeds.

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