Self-driving cars in Salt Lake City? Downtown chosen to be lab for ‘smart city’ wireless technology.

Program will give researchers a “real urban environment” to road-test the next generation of wireless “beyond 5G.“

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kobus Van der Merwe, center left, associate professor in the University of Utah's School of Computing and co-director of the school's Flux Research Group, leads the team that will build a wireless-technology "testbed" in Downtown Salt Lake City for the next generation of wireless technology. Researchers will be able to test the next generation of wireless devices, from high-speed transfers to self driving cars.

Instant internet access, self-driving cars, flying taxis — all kinds of new and unimagined technologies might be possible, thanks to a wireless test lab to be built through a swath of downtown Salt Lake City.

“We’re going to build this platform to enable wireless research,” said Kobus Van der Merwe, associate professor in the University of Utah School of Computing. “Therein lies the challenge, because we don’t know. We want to build access to research when we don’t know what it might be.”

Van der Merwe’s team of researchers, working with Houston’s Rice University, will build a next-generation wireless platform to test new software and hardware on a city-size scale. Salt Lake City’s selection for a test site, part of a program supported by the National Science Foundation and a consortium of 28 networking companies and associations, was announced Monday at the U. campus.

The test bed, to be built over the next three years, will cover an area from West Temple to the University of Utah campus and from 2nd Avenue to 500 South. There also will be 60 wireless nodes on U. buses and city-owned vehicles, including sanitation trucks and parking-enforcement cars.

An official with the National Science Foundation said the platform could help researchers road-test ideas as unknown now as smartphones were a dozen years ago.

“The touch-screen interface, the GPS capability, the wireless connectivity — every single one of those has its roots in fundamental research that’s 10 or 20 years old,” said Erwin Gianchandani, NSF’s deputy assistant director for computer and information science and engineering. “The same sort of realization could happen 10 years hence, with the wireless sector and the wireless ecosystem, if these platforms are a success.”

The possibilities are endless, Van der Merwe said.

“One of the things we already know we want are networks that are way more reliable,” he said. “Let’s think about connected vehicles, or networks that support flying taxis, in a world where the guy next door is also flying his own device. … We want a network that is capable of supporting such critical applications.”

The federal government, through the NSF, is putting up half the $100 million to build test beds at four locations nationwide as part of the Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research (PAWR) program. The remainder will come from the wireless industry, Gianchandani said.

Van der Merwe said the platform, with the acronym POWDER (Platform for Open Wireless Data-driven Experimental Research), will be deployed around the U. campus in the first year, and through downtown and on vehicles in the second year, and fully built by year three.

The platform will be built in partnership with Rice University’s massive MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) antenna arrays, called Reconfigurable Eco-system for Next-generation End-to-End Wireless, or RENEW.

The test bed will not be used by consumers, Van der Merwe said, but by researchers bringing ideas from the lab to a real urban environment. This “smart city” test platform will be open-source, he said, “to enable what we call ‘bring your own devices’ research.’”

Where companies may build platforms to test specific new products, like the 5G networks now in development, Van der Merwe said, “what we’re trying to build here is a platform that is not purpose-built, that is flexible to the extent it can support all these different things. That kind of flexibility allows you to do things you haven’t done before.”

Another test bed is being built in a square-mile space in New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, by teams from Rutgers, Columbia and New York universities. A new round of applications will be conducted to pick two more locations.

The U. cites Van der Merwe’s Flux Computing Group as one reason Salt Lake City was chosen to be a test site. Another reason is a collaboration of local partners, including the Utah Education and Telehealth Network and the U.’s internet technology department, providing fiber infrastructure and monitoring. An assortment of tech firms will be providing equipment, software and platform services.

Ruth Watkins, the U.’s president, said it was “absolutely thrilling” that the state’s flagship school will spearhead the test platform, adding, “What an opportunity for the next phase of innovations that will happen.”