Smart Agriculture is the Focus for NSF/PAWR Rural 5G Testbed

Rural agriculture is the focus of a new 5G testbed operated by the National Science Foundation’s (NSF’s) Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) Project Office. The testbed, to be known as ARA for Agriculture and Rural Communities, is PAWR’s fourth and last testbed.

The testbed is located on the Iowa State University (ISU) campus in Ames, with coverage extending to parts of the city and local crop and livestock farms.

Rural 5G Testbed

One research project that will be supported will use connected robots, known as PhenoBots) to collect plant phenotyping data using stereoscopic cameras that capture data at speeds of 800 Mbps per camera. Another project will monitor livestock with high-resolution cameras. Agriculture automation also will be a focus. The ARA platform employs backhaul and radio access technologies for backhaul connectivity and uses Aviat radios operating in the 11 gigahertz and 80 gigahertz bands. ARA also maintains fiber connections as backups.

For the radio access network (RAN), ARA worked with Skylark Wireless to develop and deploy production-grade, many-antenna multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) systems with research application programming interfaces for communications using the TV white spaces spectrum. ARA also has deployed software-defined radios from National Instruments that use mid-band connectivity.

Ericsson contributed a commercial-grade 5G network featuring a standalone (SA) core and multiple massive MIMO 5G base stations in the mid-band and mmWave band operating with commercial user equipment across the platform. This network will connect farm sites that previously had little or no broadband access.

“ARA offers a publicly available wireless living lab supporting rural-focused research, education and innovation,” Dr. Hongwei Zhang, a professor in the ISU department of electrical and computer engineering and department of computer science and the ARA platform director, said. “We are delighted to open ARA up to the research community and look forward to supporting work that will not only help narrow the gap between rural and urban connectivity, but also advance the frontiers of 5G and 6G communications.”

The ARA platform joins three large-scale PAWR testbeds: POWDER-RENEW in Salt Lake City, COSMOS in New York City and AERPAW in North Carolina’s Research Triangle. PAWR also includes Colosseum, the world’s largest radiofrequency emulator, which is housed at the Institute for the Wireless Internet of Things at Northeastern University in Boston.

PAWR’s Project Office got an additional $2.8 million in funding from the NSF late last December. The investment extended the initial five-year term of the office and supports research on technologies including open RAN, spectrum sharing and drone-based wireless systems.

The Project Office manages a $100 million public–private partnership and oversees the research platforms. It is led by US Ignite, a nonprofit, public–private organization based in Washington, D.C., and Northeastern University, with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and an industry consortium made up of more than 30 industry leaders that include Juniper, Ericsson, Nokia-Bell Labs, Qualcomm, AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon.


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