Researchers Envision a Vibrant Future Wireless Environment Compatible with Commercial Applications and Scientific Research

The University of Virginia's Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering has formed a multi-institution research team to chart a path toward a vibrant future wireless environment compatible with both commercial applications and scientific research. The team is establishing a center for Wireless Hardware Innovations and Signal Processing for Enhanced Radio-Astronomy and Scientific Spectrum Sharing, or WHISPERS. A planning grant from the National Science Foundation Spectrum Innovation Initiative supports their effort to address policy and technology challenges created by the worldwide growth of wireless systems and applications.

Wireless systems including 5G and beyond support numerous applications from personal communications and navigation to radar and sensing. The dramatically expanded need for access to the radio spectrum results in radio congestion and increases pressure on government regulators to allocate new commercial spectrum at higher frequencies, beyond 100 Gigahertz.

Recognizing the significant technical challenges of disparate interests seeking to share the same spectrum, WHISPERS combines researchers’ expertise in design, metrology, detectors, devices and system hardware solutions that have advanced international scientific research operating in microwave to terahertz frequencies and beyond.

Info graphic list WHISPERS actvities and outcomes

Robert M. Weikle, II, University of Virginia professor of electrical and computer engineering, serves as WHISPERS’ principal investigator. “This vast and untapped frequency region represents an unprecedented opportunity for commercial applications,” Weikle said. Emerging applications in the “internet of things,” smart cities and autonomous vehicles are an increasing technology presence across the entire spectrum.

Tony Beasley, director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, is among the first to join WHISPERS. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory, a Charlottesville, Virginia-based facility of the National Science Foundation operated under cooperative agreement by Associated Universities, Inc., is a key scientific institution operating in the radio spectrum. Its staff conduct astronomical observations at radio wavelengths and run the world’s most powerful and productive radio telescope facilities for use by the international scientific community.

“We will benefit from NRAO’s longstanding experience in scientific, regulatory and legislative aspects of spectrum policy management, as well as the creation, operation and monitoring of electromagnetic quiet zones,” Weikle said.

“Radio astronomers, atmospheric physicists and chemists have been operating with sophisticated detectors in the electromagnetic spectrum for decades,” Arthur W. Lichtenberger, research professor of electrical and computer engineering, said. Lichtenberger is also the director of the microfabrication laboratories at UVA. “Research of fundamental importance to our world, including the origins of the universe and climate change, rests on scientists’ continued access to clean spectrum unpolluted by humans.”

Randall Berry, Northwestern University John A. Dever professor of electrical and computer engineering and department chair, serves as WHISPERS co-principal investigator. Dongning Guo, professor of electrical and computer engineering with Northwestern University’s Communications and Networking Laboratory, has also joined the partnership. UVA and Northwestern share strong credentials in dynamic spectrum access, wireless communications, signal processing, machine learning and extremely low-power radio frequency circuits.

Virginia Diodes, Inc., rounds out the team. Virginia Diodes is a leading producer of millimeter wave and terahertz test and measurement equipment and components located in Charlottesville, Virginia. Virginia Diodes is a key commercial source for technology and test equipment from Ka Band to beyond one terahertz. “The focus and activities of the WHISPERS center will enable the coexistence of commercial and scientific interests, which are crucial to future use and regulation of the electromagnetic spectrum above 100 GHz,” Gerhard Schoenthal, chief operating officer, said.

“We are privileged to contribute to NSF’s ecosystem for spectrum research,” Nikolaos Sidiropoulos, UVA Louis T. Rader Professor of electrical and computer engineering and department chair, said. “We look forward to initiating activities and preparing for the NSF’s next steps in spectrum innovation.”