Drone Research in North Carolina

The Platform for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, funded by the National Science Foundation, recently expanded the footprint for a wireless research trial in North Carolina. Labeled as the Aerial Experimentation and Research Platform for Advanced Wireless (AERPAW), a wireless testbed has been created in and around Cary, NC to also include the Lake Wheeler Field Laboratory and the Centennial Campus of NC State in Raleigh.

The wireless testbed is one of four created in the country. There will be a number of participants in the experiments, including NC State University, the Wireless Research Center of North Carolina, Mississippi State University, the Renaissance Computing Institute of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the town of Cary, the City of Raleigh, Purdue University, and the University of South Carolina.

The AERPAW program has been seeded with $24 million of grants from the National Science Foundation. The primary purpose of the North Carolina testbed is to explore the integration of drones with 5G wireless technology and to accelerate the development and commercialization of promising technologies.

The recent expansion came when the FCC named the area as an Innovation Zone as part of its Program Experimental Licenses. These licenses give the qualified research institutions the ability to conduct multiple and unrelated experiments over a range of frequency bands without having to ask permission from the FCC each time. The combination of the PAWR grants and the FCC Innovation Zone means an accelerated timeline for gaining access to the spectrum needed for experiments.

The North Carolina experiments are just getting underway and should be in full swing by 2023. There are already some interesting experiments being contemplated:

  • There will be an experiment to explore the feasibility of using drones to temporarily act as cell sites after the damage caused by hurricanes and other disasters. As our society becomes more reliant on 5G connectivity, there will be an urgency in restoring damaged cell sites quickly. The experiments will also consider the use of 5G cell sites mounted on cars, buses, and golf carts.
  • This same concept might be able to make a portion of a cellular network mobile, meaning the network could be shifted to serve increased demand when people and traffic are unexpectedly busy. Picture 5G drones flying over a football stadium.
  • There will be experiments to try to improve and guarantee the accuracy and ability of drones to delivery key packages such as medicines or commercial deliveries.
  • Research is contemplated to use drones to collect data from IoT sensors on nearby farms.
  • There is also an experiment envisioned that will look at ways to improve the ability of air traffic control to track and account for drones.

The PAWR platform is interesting in that commercial companies can request research into specific applications. In this case, a corporation could fund research into a specific use of drones, and the Innovation Zone means that any spectrum issues associated with trying new ideas can be accommodated. As might be expected, several wireless vendors are part of the platform. For example, Ericsson has installed 4G/5G RAN equipment at the Lake Wheeler site to initiate experimentation. Thirty-five vendors plan to participate in the four wireless testbeds around the country and might likely be the major beneficiaries of any technologies that prove to be viable.

This kind of research is vital if we are to develop wireless technologies for widespread use. There is only so much experimentation that can happen in labs, and this kind of testbed allows researchers to quickly identify both issues and benefits of 5G drone applications.

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