The 5G enterprise market has been projected to be valued over $31 billion by 2027, according to numerous industry sources. Major driving factors are lower latency in 5G, growing adoption of virtual networking architecture in telecommunications, and growth in mobile data traffic.

In response to the growing market, Virginia Tech has partnered with MITRE Engenuity’s Open Generation Consortium (Open Gen) — a privately funded research and development community that brings together diverse technical experts and domain leaders to envision, design, develop, and demonstrate innovative solutions uniquely enabled by emerging 5G capabilities. Other industry, nonprofit, and academic members include Ericsson, Nokia, Verizon, Altiostar, FIRST iZ, HUSH Aerospace, Kittyhawk, CTIA – The Wireless Association, and Northeastern University.

“Virginia Tech’s role in the consortium further amplifies that the university is a destination for the research, testing, and innovation with drones connected through 5G wireless communications,” said Dan Sui, vice president for research and innovation at Virginia Tech. “By strengthening our work with government and industry, Virginia Tech will help drive workforce development in the commonwealth, broaden the 5G ecosystem in the United States, and promote convergence research on the global scene.”

The consortium will focus on use-case innovation across a series of U.S.-based 5G test ranges. One of only two academic institutions in Open Gen, Virginia Tech’s role will contribute to research around further integrating unmanned aerial vehicles, otherwise known as drones, in the United States. With the broader group of partners, the team plans to link together a national network of test ranges to address additional use cases in the future.

With use cases related to operating 5G-equipped drones over the U.S., initial testing will take place on ranges owned by Virginia Tech using the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative’s 5G testbed. Virginia Tech leads the statewide cybersecurity initiative composed of 320 researchers from 39 Virginia institutions of higher education along with industry and government partners. 

The Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI) will be integral to the consortium’s work. 5G connectivity to drones is at the intersection of cybersecurity, autonomous systems, and artificial intelligence and is an important area of research for the initiative, said Luiz DaSilva, CCI's executive director. 

“We have been involved from the start in the planning of some of the first experiments of the consortium,” DaSilva said. “These experiments are planned to demonstrate 5G connectivity to drones in Virginia Tech's drone park in Blacksburg, Virginia, and the consortium will use CCI's 5G testbed equipment and personnel.”

Just days ago, newly appointed CCI 5G Testbed Director Aloizio Pereira da Silva visited Virginia Tech’s Blacksburg campus, running initial testbed experiments with students of Jeffrey Reed, the Willis G. Worcester Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech and the CCI chief technology officer, at the Wireless@VT center.

Using Virginia Tech’s drone park, the consortium will explore issues that could impede safe flight by preventing drones from reacting to obstacles and other vehicles in their path. 

In 2018, Virginia Tech opened the country’s tallest drone park, supporting its long history of diverse autonomous systems research. The park is a joint venture by the College of Engineering, the Office of the Executive Vice President and Provost, and the Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science

The Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), which helped design the drone park, leads major federal drone-integration programs with partners, including Wing, State Farm, and NASA. The drone park extends Virginia Tech’s leadership in drone research, operations, and policy to an even broader group of students and faculty.

MAAP, an FAA-designated test site for unmanned aircraft systems, will be instrumental in the consortium’s efforts. MAAP focuses on advancing drone integration by connecting industry challenges with solutions driven by world-class research. The group works closely with regulating authorities and industry partners on groundbreaking studies that inform evidence-based policies and standards.

“Secure access to 5G networks will open up new possibilities for drones,” said Mark Blanks, MAAP’s director. “5G can enable robust control links and facilitate crucial, but data-intensive, functions like autonomous detection and avoidance of other aircraft. This research will influence the course of drone integration in the U.S., and it’s very exciting for us at Virginia Tech to be involved in launching it.”