The Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation, (VT-ARC) working with the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), has won a $13 million Department of Defense contract to develop a 5G-enabled “smart warehouse” at the Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia.

Fast 5G wireless connectivity combined with internet of things sensor networks promises to change how warehouses move and track items to ensure they arrive at their intended destination in a timely manner. It is no easy task; the 5G communications architecture must be adept at navigating a noisy warehouse environment, be quick about it, and have a long battery life to boot.

CCI was critical to the contract, creating the connections to build a team and funding a substantive portion of the proposal development. CCI researchers from Virginia Tech, Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University, University of Virginia, and George Mason University will collaborate across disciplines, including electrical and computer engineering, systems engineering, wireless communications, modeling, simulation, and analysis to develop the low-latency, resilient, and energy-efficient 5G network for the Marine Corps Logistics Base’s smart warehouse prototype. Four industry partners — Intelligent Automation Inc., PerspectaLabs, Keysight, and B3 Advanced Communications are also part of the project.

“The 5G smart warehouse project is a big win for the Commonwealth of Virginia,” said Luiz DaSilva, CCI executive director and the Bradley Professor of Cybersecurity at Virginia Tech. “It shows how CCI’s mission to unite the state’s research capabilities is successful in pursuing large, influential projects. We’re excited about what this program means for 5G research and how it helps build the foundation for Virginia to become a global leader in cybersecurity.”

Funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia, CCI is focused on research, innovation, and workforce development at the intersection of security, autonomous systems, and data. The statewide initiative includes industry and government partners, 40 institutions of higher learning, and more than 300 researchers.

“VT-ARC is honored to be part of such an important initiative to apply technologies and capabilities that safeguard the nation, the warfighter, and improve the human condition,” said John Forte, president and chief executive officer of VT-ARC, during the executive kick-off session.

Sachin Shetty is the project’s technical lead and holds dual appointments as executive director of the Center for Secure & Intelligent Critical Systems at the Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center (VMASC) and associate professor in the Department of Computational Modeling and Simulation Engineering; all at Old Dominion University.

The technical team includes:

  • Lingjia Liu, electrical and computer engineering associate professor at Virginia Tech, working on Distributed Coherent Multiple-Input Multiple-Output enhancement technical development.
  • Ruixin Niu, electrical and computer engineering associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, Distributed Coherent Multiple-Input Multiple-Output enhancement technical development.
  • Jeffrey Reed, CCI chief technology officer, founder of Wireless@VirginiaTech, and Willis G. Worcester Professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, working on Resilient Distributed Positioning Network enhancement technical development.
  • Cong Shen, electrical and computer engineering assistant professor at the University of Virginia.
  • Chunsheng Xin,  cybersecurity and electrical and computer engineering professor at Old Dominion University.
  • Kai Zeng, electrical and computer engineering associate professor at George Mason.

The smart warehouse project will put 5G capabilities to the test, Reed said. “Warehouses can be an especially challenging environment for any wireless systems,” he added. “We will be leveraging the robust nature of 5G to provide connectivity within the warehouse in support of item location and inventory control.”

VT-ARC also will utilize the expertise of Virginia Tech faculty in the Grado Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering to develop the concept of operations for integration of 5G enhancements into the warehouse environment.

The project will utilize the CCI 5G testbed, one of the few in the nation.

“The CCI 5G testbed is a testable and integrative piece across the main milestones of the project. It will serve as an intermediate platform for testing 5G connectivity with the resilient distributed position system before integrating it with the Albany smart warehouse,” said Aloizio Pereira da Silva, testbed director. “Also, the CCI 5G testbed will allow the partners working in different subtasks to test and improve the performance of different building blocks before they’re put to work at the Albany Warehouse site.”

5G can bridge the gap between indoor and outdoor mobile communications, connecting 4G for outdoor use with WiFi for the indoor environment, to help monitor an outbound order that includes goods in-transit that have not yet been received at the warehouse.

5G enabled sensors also can track smaller items, a task too expensive with current technology. Other advantages include 5G's reduced latency means there's little lag time between when a sensor detects information and when it's recognized by the system. This will enable vehicle-to-vehicle communication for automated trucks and warehouse robots. Processing power will be able to move closer to the work, increasing the capability of sensors and mobile devices.