Ericsson offers drone researchers a look behind the 5G curtain

Ericsson signed on to provide a complete 4G/5G network system for a drone research project funded by the U.S. government, a move experts told Fierce will allow academics to dig deeper into the network than ever before and fuel research that could inform future 3GPP specifications.

The vendor’s equipment will be used to supply connectivity at the Aerial Experimentation and Research Platform for Advanced Wireless (AERPAW) testbed in North Carolina, which is set to open for general availability in mid-June. The testbed is part of the National Science Foundation’s Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program, and will be open to a cohort of about 400 academics and users from approximately 35 industry partners.

Paul Challoner, Ericsson’s VP of Network Product Solutions, told Fierce it will provide a full end-to-end system, including 4G and 5G radios, antenna, site and fronthaul infrastructure, 4G and 5G core network and software. He added it will use 100 MHz of 3.5 GHz spectrum, offering a “good proxy” for what operations might be like on mid-band spectrum in the U.S.

Notably, Challoner said the system will be “fully programmable,” allowing researchers to tinker with network settings in a way previously not possible.

PAWR Technical Director Manu Gosain explained to Fierce “nobody in our community has had the opportunity to get their hands on a production [grade] operational network that is purely geared toward research and experimentation.”

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He continued “you’ll see countless studies trying to decipher what the big three operators do, and you’ll find multiple studies where people are trying to understand what modulation coding schemes are being used, what network policies are being used, but it’s purely a guessing game because this is all controlled internally by the operators. For the first time, we’re sort of pulling the covers back and allowing researchers to really interact and explore” with the network to optimize drone operations.

Challoner added such a system is needed to help advance drone-based use cases – spanning public safety, aerial surveillance, precision agriculture and more – out of the demonstration phase and into commercial reality.

“What we’re trying to do is, we need to take it from a pilot-based, line-of-sight system over Wi-Fi unlicensed spectrum to a fully remote, autonomous, beyond visual line-of-sight arrangement,” he said. “So this exercise is to provide some of the research insights to be able to take us on that drone journey.”

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Gosain said findings from research conducted at the AERPAW testbed could help inform future 3GPP specifications, noting Release 17 is set to include several items focused on unmanned aerial vehicles. Specifically, he said results could shed light on channel modeling at different altitudes and propagation characteristics for drone-based cell sites.

He added AERPAW is working to set up an interface that will allow researchers to conduct trials remotely after submitting their experiment plan for approval.

In terms of how long it will take for the testbed to yield results, Gosain said the goal is to present initial findings during conferences later this year, with “tangible results, experiments and demos” likely to follow in Q1 2022.