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Alumni Magazine

Up in the air

NC State will help 5G and unmanned drones reach their full potential.

Artist rendering of Hunt Library and Fitts Woolard Hall. Teal sky, white clouds, black trees, gray buildings with three gray drones flying overhead.

Catching a glimpse of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) in flight is still a novelty for most people. Researchers working with UAVs, more commonly known as drones, envision a future in which you’ll see them everywhere, performing a variety of tasks that make our lives easier and doing so safely.

A sneak peek of that future will be available around the NC State campus and surrounding communities in the coming years. National Science Foundation (NSF) funding is helping faculty members in the College’s Departments of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) and Computer Science (CSC) build experimental testbeds using new fifth generation (5G) wireless communication technology to allow the research that will enable the future of drones.

Aerial drone silhouetted against an orange sunset.

As the power of our wireless networks has grown, from 2G to 3G and then 4G technology, the possible applications for drones have as well. They have tremendous potential for a wide variety of uses, from monitoring the grazing patterns of cattle to providing on-time deliveries or assisting with traffic control. They can also carry a wireless node, providing connectivity to a rural area, battlefield or disaster zone. In order to do that safely and efficiently, wireless communication had to improve. The vehicles must be able to communicate with each other and must be detectable around airports and other sensitive areas.

“At some point, 4G will not be able to support that safely,” said Ismail Guvenc, professor in ECE and principal investigator (PI) of the Aerial Experimentation and Research Platform for Experimental Wireless (AERPAW) led by NC State. “5G will be able to do that.”
AERPAW was established in 2019 with a $24 million grant from NSF’s Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) Project Office. PAWR, in coordination with Northeastern University, broadband development nonprofit US Ignite and a consortium of leading companies, is funding four city-scale research testbeds across the country to enable U.S. research in areas of wireless devices and networks and to train the nation’s domestic workforce. AERPAW is the only one of the four that is studying 5G and autonomous drones together.

NC State’s local partners in the effort are the Town of Cary and City of Raleigh, the NC Department of Transportation, the Renaissance Computing Institute at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the nonprofit Wireless Research Center. Purdue University, the University of South Carolina and Mississippi State University are also involved in the effort, as is a consortium of dozens of industry partners.

Students work on drones at lab table.

AERPAW offers researchers from around the globe a chance to conduct their experiments in a real-world environment, whether they visit North Carolina or not.
Vasilii Semkin, a senior research scientist at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland who used the AERPAW testbed to determine whether the drone-detecting radar that he and his colleagues developed would return accurate readings in the field, visited NC State earlier this year.

“I’m passionate about drones,” Semkin said. “There are more and more emerging applications for them. It’s literally endless.”

Drones and dairy

Drive south of NC State’s Centennial Campus along Lake Wheeler Road and you will find hundreds of acres of open farmland that supports university research in poultry, dairy, cover crops, aquaculture and more. Now, you can add drone research to the list.

AERPAW’s testbed on the Lake Wheeler Road Field Laboratory is one of the two planned testbed sites; the other will be on Centennial. This testbed allows experimenters a chance to work in a rural environment, while the expansion in the Centennial site is expected to enable drone experiments in urban scenarios in the future.

Testing drones on Centennial is nothing new, thanks to a research effort started 15 years ago called the NC State Centennial Wireless Mesh Project, or CentMesh. Some of the same faculty members who are now leading AERPAW, including co-PIs Professor Mihail Sichitiu of ECE and CSC Professor Rudra Dutta, established CentMesh. Brian Floyd, ECE Alton and Mildred Lancaster Professor, is also an AERPAW co-PI, as is Thomas Zajkowski, flight operation manager with NC State’s Institute for Transportation Research and Education.

Tractor pulling harvesting implement with drone hovering overhead.

CentMesh built a permanent outdoor wireless mesh facility on Centennial using rooftop and pole-mounted nodes, along with mobile nodes on pushcarts and on drones. The AERPAW network that extended some of the existing CentMesh infrastructure is completely user-programmable and can be used for research, outreach and education activities.

The fact that NC State researchers had built and maintained CentMesh helped make a strong case for landing one of the four PAWR projects, Sichitiu said. So, too, did the fact that NC State was willing to invest in the necessary infrastructure.

The AERPAW testbeds offer users both fixed and mobile nodes to interact with. Those mobile nodes can be on drones, but also on a ground-based rover and even a helium balloon, which can stay airborne much longer than a drone.

Users are asked to conduct their experiments in a virtual environment first, in a digital twin of the real environment where the testbed experiments are to be carried out. Faculty members and students who are part of the AERPAW operations team will then run the software developed in the virtual environment in the real-world testbed and collect the data, and finally, share the data with the experimenters. This two-step process allows the AERPAW team to ensure that testbed operations always stay compliant with relevant FCC and FAA regulations. Based on the outcome from the testbed experiment, researchers may choose to refine their experiments in the virtual environment.

I was happy to spend my time at NC State … I had a chance to see how an American university works and how they put students first … I felt like I was part of the Pack.”

Matteo Drago

AERPAW faculty members and students build their own drones using ECE’s Troxler MakerSpace. While commercially produced drones could be outfitted with the hardware and software needed to work for the testbed, Sichitiu said that building their own offers much-needed flexibility, including the programmed repeatability of experiments that is critical to science.

“It’s a first-of-its-kind facility,” Dutta said of AERPAW. The Department of Defense maintains drone testbeds, but they aren’t available to academic researchers. Of those that are available for public use, none before AERPAW have offered outside experimenters the opportunity to work with programmable drones.

Part of the Pack

After initial NSF funding, the hope is that AERPAW will continue with other sources of support and will make NC State, and by extension the Research Triangle region of North Carolina, a hotbed for drone research, development and commercialization that will draw collaborators from around the globe.

For Matteo Drago, visiting NC State was worth the long flight. Drago, a third-year Ph.D. student supervised by Professor Michele Zorzi from the SIGNET Research Group at Italy’s University of Padova, arrived at NC State in November 2021. As his work studying the next generation of mobile networks progressed, Drago felt that working with a testbed could be the missing piece in his understanding of how a network functions.

“I was happy to spend my time at NC State for six months,” he said. “I had a chance to see how an American university works and how they put students first. I thought the facilities were astonishing.

“I felt like I was part of the Pack.”