SpectrumX Partnership Leverages UVA Engineering’s Long-Standing Expertise in Radio Astronomy

The University of Virginia’s Charles L. Brown Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering is expanding its research hub for wireless spectrum sharing as a partner in SpectrumX, a proposed National Center for Spectrum Innovation.

SpectrumX is the brainchild of four research teams awarded planning grants through the National Science Foundation’s Spectrum Innovation Initiative competition. By joining forces, the teams aim to create a much-needed U.S. platform for sustained research, innovation, education and workforce development across the spectrum ecosystem, realized through a comprehensive, interdisciplinary plan for a five-year, $25 million National Center for Wireless Spectrum Research grant that NSF will award next year.

SpectrumX seeks to remedy a potentially dangerous gap in the policy analysis chain, to fundamentally advance how U.S. policy makers approach, analyze and implement radio spectrum allocation in the decades to come.

Robert M. Weikle II, professor of electrical and computer engineering, leads the UVA team that earned a planning grant for Wireless Hardware Innovation and Signal Processing for Enhanced Radio-Astronomy and Scientific Spectrum-Sharing, or WHISPERS. UVA team members possess expertise in design, metrology, detectors, devices and system hardware solutions that have advanced international research operating in microwave to terahertz frequencies and beyond.

“We believe commercial interests and scientific missions can co-exist,” Weikle said.

UVA team member Tony Beasley, Director of the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, understands why spectrum management is important to the scientific research community.

“A successful spectrum innovation center will raise the visibility of spectrum coordination and regulatory processes among all key stakeholders, including the academic research, commercial and non-profit communities, and governmental bodies at all levels,” Beasley said. “For more than five decades, NRAO has worked towards protecting scientific uses of the spectrum because it is vital to future scientific discoveries with instruments like the next-generation Very Large Array.”

“SpectrumX offers a holistic framework to manage competing needs for this scarce resource,” Weikle said. The UVA team’s knowledge and understanding of phenomena and instrumentation for bands above 100 Gigahertz complements partners’ expertise in the lower radio-frequency bands, the 5G spectrum and frequencies dedicated to air traffic, weather forecasting, homeland defense and other uses for public benefit.

The teams that compose SpectrumX include:

  • Wireless Hardware Innovations and Signal Processing for Enhanced Radio-astronomy and Scientific Spectrum Sharing, led by Professor Robert Weikle at UVA and including Northwestern University, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory and Virginia Diodes;
  • National Center for Radio Spectrum Innovations, led by Professor J. Nicholas Laneman at the University of Notre Dame and including the University of California-Berkeley, the University of California-Los Angeles, Clemson University, New York University, Northwestern University and Stanford University;
  • Olin Spectrum Innovation Initiative Center, led by Professor Whitney Lohmeyer at Olin College of Engineering and including Mangata Networks LLC; and
  • Wireless Innovation and Spectrum Evolution, led by Professor Scott Palo at the University of Colorado Boulder and including University of California San Diego, University of Pittsburgh, and University of Puerto Rico Mayaguez.

SpectrumX brings together thought leaders in the areas of terrestrial wireless networks, satellite sensing and networking, environmental radar sensing, radio astronomy and military spectrum use.

Whitney Lohmeyer, assistant professor of engineering at Olin College, is enthusiastic about their prospects. “As the first engineer at OneWeb, and as an advisor to several satellite broadband entities, I have found myself in the trenches of regulatory coexistence issues among the satellite communications, 5G terrestrial wireless and radio astronomy communities,” Lohmeyer said. “Based upon my personal experience, we have a tremendous opportunity to not only conduct innovative research and influence regulatory policy, but also to better prepare a diverse workforce of scientists and engineers for our future.” 

Al Gasiewski, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Center for Environmental Technology at the University of Colorado Boulder, stresses the importance of spectrum use for environmental science. “Earth observations for both scientific understanding of the global oceans, atmosphere, land, and polar regions, as well as accurate weather forecasting that underlies our economy, are critically dependent on the availability and shared use of the radio spectrum,” Gasiewski said.

Gasiewski develops advanced satellite- and drone-based sensors that utilize the most sensitive radio receivers possible to measure environmental parameters such as temperature, soil moisture, winds and rainfall. “We will help inform coexistence requirements and enhance radio receivers for environmental sensing and wireless transmitter coordination to effectively share spectrum,” Gasiewski said.

Tom Marzetta, Distinguished Industry Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at New York University and director of NYU Wireless, adds: “Radio spectrum is a precious natural resource; you can always lay down more optical fiber, but you can never lay down more spectrum. The world will soon demand the next level of human-to-human communication – ubiquitous augmented reality.

“Supporting a vast number of mobile augmented reality users, each with staggering wireless throughput and low latency, is perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced by wireless engineers and scientists. It will require concerted efforts to both multiply spectral efficiency in existing spectral bands and expand operations to new frequencies,” Marzetta said.

The four planning teams who are integrating their efforts under SpectrumX’s auspices share both vision and values.

“The merger expands our capacity to conduct education and outreach with members of the pubic and to ensure that diverse voices and perspectives are welcomed and respected,” Weikle said. The SpectrumX team sees a role for citizen scientists to complement fundamental research and technology demonstration test beds.

Thomas W. Hazlett, H.H. Macaulay Endowed Professor of Economics at Clemson University, is a leading spectrum economics and policy researcher and former Chief Economist at the Federal Communications Commission. Hazlett sums up the national need and SpectrumX’s high-level strategy this way: “The radio spectrum provides the oxygen for scientific sensing of our world, exploring the universe, protecting the nation and our allies, commercializing space and all aspects of the mobile wireless economy.

“As application demands grow, and technology developments accelerate, governments everywhere are struggling with understanding their options for allocating spectrum and selecting the best policies. Regulators seek more engagement from scientists, engineers, economists, and academic researchers with the highly specialized knowledge informing these choices, especially as new breakthroughs are developed.”

The University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Notre Dame and the University of Virginia each provide a research hub. These institutions bring significant infrastructure as well as industry and government relationships to the effort.

A total of 17 Planning Grant teams earned funding for 12 months to enable networking and develop collaborations among potential partners, in pursuit of the creation of a larger, well-organized team that can submit a full proposal to NSF by April 1, 2021. In addition to continuously recruiting from many other top universities, emphasizing inclusive excellence and filling gaps in expertise, the SpectrumX team is actively obtaining feedback from and exploring partnerships with commercial industry and government agencies.