ECE News

Wireless research group one of largest in nation

By Jenny Frank

Blacksburg, Va., June 2, 2006 -- Wireless communication research, which has long been an area of strength at Virginia Tech, has become a major focus with the creation of one of the largest wireless research groups in the United States, Wireless @ Virginia Tech. The new university center encompasses eight centers, groups, and laboratories, including the well-known Center for Wireless Telecommunications, Mobile, and Portable Radio Research Group (MPRG), and the Virginia Tech Antenna Group – bringing together 27 faculty members and more than 100 graduate students focused on wireless.

Wireless @ Virginia Tech (W@VTech) will hold its kick-off event June 7-9 at the Inn at Virginia Tech and Skelton Conference Center. Jeff Reed, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of W@VTech, announced that the 16th annual MPRG Symposium will become the Wireless @ Virginia Tech Symposium on Wireless Personal Communications. Leading researchers from the industry and universities will give presentations and tutorials. For example, Charles Bostian, professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, will deliver a short course on cognitive radio, and Mark Hermeling of Zeligsoft, Inc. will give a tutorial on software design for software radios.

Reed said that W@VTech will continue to perform pioneering research and educate the next generation of wireless engineers. Faculty members' technical expertise range from circuits to networks.

Cognitive radio is a major research activity for the new group. Cognitive radio uses PC technology to allow the portable units used by emergency personnel to communicate, even if they are using different systems. The PC-based radio has artificial intelligence that can observe the environment, take action – such as avoiding interference and enhancing connectivity – and learn, so that continued communication is assured by wirelessly networked intelligent radios. “Cognitive radio will also allow for better management of the spectrum, will enable the TV bands to be refarmed, and will provide a new level of sophistication in unlicensed devices such as ad-hoc video conferencing," said Reed. "Two years ago, we had no projects in this area. Today, half our projects are related to cognitive radio. Such an interdisciplinary area was one example of why it was important to reorganize the pool of resources."

"Interdisciplinary" in this context refers to the concentrations within electrical engineering, such as antenna design, wireless networking, communication architecture, micro-electronics, RF electronics, and system-integration. Disciplines outside of electrical engineering, such as computer science, mathematics, economics, and business, also make up the W@VTech team.

Virginia Tech also has research expertise in physical layer communications, software radios, system prototype development including systems on a chip, and new wireless device technology, and is also developing new standards to assure interoperability. A soon-to-be popular example is gigabit per second (Gbps) wireless networks, which Reed calls "the video wallpaper enabler." These networks will receive high data rate video signals regardless of who manufactured the transmitter.

"The wireless technology that people are most familiar is composed of cellular base stations and a large and expensive infrastructure,” Reed said. “We are beginning to have wireless devices everywhere. They are cheap and embedded in lots of things, such as for communication between vehicles and traffic lights.” Such applications require low cost and in some cases high data rate transmission.

Other new wireless areas include radio frequency identification (RF ID) tagging – a boon for tracking and inventory control – and a new generation of wireless systems to provide both WiFi and cellular-like services at speeds over 200 times today's cellular service, "which will have tremendous economic impact on rural areas such as Southwest Virginia by providing low-cost high-speed Internet access," noted Reed. "Ultra wideband technology capable of up to one Gbps and extremely energy efficient communication techniques will serve as a replacement for wires and cables in the home and office for high-speed, short range connectivity between devices."

The Virginia Tech researchers also have active programs in low-power sensor systems, location systems for harsh environments, wearable computing, and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS). Radio Frequency (RF) MEMS applications include extremely small and flexible capacitors, switches, and filters that are used to build flexible radios.

"The unified wireless group will allow us to present one stop shopping for wireless research," Reed said. "We will be able to establish a closer working relationship among faculty members and set the stage for large sponsored research programs and scholarly projects requiring many faculty members with broad expertise. Furthermore, we believe that the resources offered by the new organization will help draw wireless companies to locate in this area."

Several wireless communications groups have had long-standing affiliate groups – industry partners that support research programs and provide students with employment opportunities. Such industry partners encouraged the Virginia Tech researchers to consolidate and adopt a business-like structure, Reed said.

Patented products from the W@VTech faculty have advanced the telecommunication industry nationwide, such as an antenna now used at many WiFi sites, techniques for reducing the size of base stations, and open source software for modeling and creating wireless devices. Access to such discoveries is important to the groups' industry partners. Affiliate benefits will include an intellectual property (IP) catalog describing key innovations and benefits, access to research seminars, summaries of research results in a newsletter, half-day on-site tutorials, and free passes to the "wireless summer school" organized by W@VTech.

The Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) is providing a start-up fund to W@VTech for hiring additional personnel and purchasing equipment.

Learn More

To learn more, visit the Wireless @ Virginia Tech website.