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Six ways higher education is advancing 5G

The 5G mobile standard is expected to one day provide the backbone for “smart” infrastructure, including near-instantaneous data sharing, high-definition video streaming, autonomous vehicles and facial recognition.

Here are a few of the most innovative 5G projects and test beds at universities that are supporting students on their campuses and furthering research on the next generation of wireless technology.

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1. 5G tractors

In 2019, Purdue University researchers worked with their contemporaries at North Carolina State University to build a National Science Foundation-funded specialized wireless network to turn farm machinery, like tractors, into internet of things tools. For example, installing specialized network equipment to a tractor can transmit the location, fuel consumption, temperature, pressure, hitch position, amount of slip and more to a farmer’s cell phone. 

Purdue University and AT&T last December also opened a 5G research and development test bed in Indianapolis focused on infrastructural applications. Students and faculty will use AT&T’s “multi-access edge computing” technology to process more data at lower latency. 

More recently, the university announced it’s opening a 5G lab in June in its mixed-use research and development park that will focus on advanced manufacturing, hypersonics and microelectronics. Engineer professor David Love said the program will allow his team to test mobile technologies in rural settings “in ways that aren’t possible right now.” 

AT&T is also sponsoring labs at the University of Connecticut and University of Missouri, both of which are scheduled to open later this year.

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2. 5G assistive backpack

New York University’s 5G research facility has been studying the technology in Brooklyn since 2012 and has since developed countless projects, including, according to the center’s website, a “very intuitive” prototype of an assistive backpack with modules that sense the space around the wearer before transmitting data to a headset or haptic-feedback belt. The team is also studying how 5G could help outsource the computing power for a robot’s artificial intelligence.

The center counts Dell, Qualcomm, Sony and Nokia among its affiliates and operates as a convening place for students, faculty and the university’s industry partners to do tech research. About 100 faculty and students from NYU’s engineering, medicine and mathematics schools are part of the center. Some are researching terahertz spectrum frequencies that could pave the way for a 6G wireless standard.

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3. A better 5G switch

Last May, University of Texas at Austin faculty partnered with researchers at the University of Lille in France to build a radio-frequency switch — the thing in smartphones that enables them to switch between different types of wireless networks — that’s 50 times more efficient than what’s in current phone models. That could lead to longer battery lives, higher performance and more reliable applications, like streaming high-definition video. The enhanced switches can also be used to improve almost any internet-connected device or satellite system, researchers said. The University of Texas at Austin has been home to a multidisciplinary research group, the Wireless Networking and Communications Group, since 2002, and the university is continuing to make breakthroughs in 5G.

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4. 5G drones (under attack)

Stanford University announced in March that a team of its researchers is planning to demonstrate to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency officials that formations of computer-controlled drones can be managed even with continuous cyberattacks on the 5G network they’re operating on. The three-year, $30 million effort, called Project Pronto, will get help from Princeton University and Cornell University, funded largely by the nonprofit Open Networking Foundation, which promotes a goal of making 5G networks secure for public safety use.

“For the first time in history, there is not a single U.S. manufacturer of cellular telephone equipment. Meanwhile, the world is building 5G infrastructure on equipment where you have no idea what’s in the boxes,” Nick McKeown, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford, said in a press release in March. “This is DARPA’s worry. This is the government’s worry. And they should be worried.”

McKeown’s strategy, if successful, could help networks recover from cyberattacks in less than a second, according to the university.

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5. 5G nursing

Kansas University and T-Mobile teamed up at the start of the university’s fall semester last year to challenge students at the Kansas University School of Nursing and the Kansas University Center for Design Research to build 5G-based training tools that might help remote students learn, on or off campus. Design students, with help from T-Mobile engineers, built their capstone research project by studying the impact that 5G could have on learning tools like virtual and augmented reality devices, artificial intelligence-powered software and robotics.

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6. 5G shipping containers

Students at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia, are studying how shipping ports can use 5G at Virginia’s 5G testbed, which opened to dozens of higher education institutions late last year. They’re studying whether 5G sensors installed in shipping containers, which collect and transmit capacity, condition and location data instantly to a port headquarters, can improve operational efficiency.

The test bed was conceived by the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative, a research, education and training network of Virginia-based universities and researchers consisting of 320 researchers from 39 higher education institutions. It began training students on a new 5G test bed in Arlington, Virginia, in November, where director Aloizio Pereira da Silva said researchers can “play around with the building blocks on a small scale and then move to large scale.”

The test bed is located on the campus of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative in Arlington, but “regional nodes,” or research hubs at George Mason University, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia Tech and Old Dominion University will each have their own 5G-specific research focus. Virginia Tech students, for example, will study how 5G plays a role in “smart” transportation and “smart” grids, while Virginia Commonwealth University students will study the “internet of things,” health care and “smart cities.”

This story is part of EdScoop’s Special Report on Emerging Edtech.

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