The cargo shipping industry needs data. Up-to-the-minute information about how full shipping containers are, where they are, and what shape they’re in would dramatically boost efficiency.

But right now, that data doesn’t exist, explains Sachin Shetty, an associate professor of computational, modeling, and simulation engineering and associate director of Virginia Modeling, Analysis, and Simulation Center at Old Dominion University.

“Most of the time they have more large containers than they need and they aren’t filled,” he said. “That affects efficiency in scheduling and fuel consumption. What they’re lacking is the ability to track the containers in real time — to know where they’re located, their capacity, and their condition, and being able to relay that information to an analytics platform.” 

One solution would be to equip the thousands of cargo containers in seaports and shipping lanes with wireless, battery-powered sensors to collect and share data. 

“Innovation is one of the port’s core values,” said Joseph P. Ruddy, chief innovation officer at the Virginia Port Authority. “Real-time insights on cargo loads could provide game-changing benefits to every player in the logistics chain.”

But accessing and utilizing those insights will demand access to robust, reliable wireless networks that could handle vast numbers of connections and do so securely. 

Shipping is just a fraction of the picture — transportation, health care, energy, national security, and a host of other fields are all predicted to evolve in ways that will require seamless, secure wireless connectivity. The answer is a technology widely expected to transform the communications and cyber landscape: 5G.

And a unique 5G wireless test bed under development in Virginia is set to bring that connected future several steps closer to the present. With the creation of the test bed, Virginia’s universities will be among the first in the country with access to state-of-the art 5G equipment. They’ll use that unparalleled access, and an existing well of expertise, to focus on security research that will help ensure 5G operates smoothly and for the common good.  

The test bed is one of the flagship projects of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI). Launched in 2018 with funding from the Commonwealth of Virginia, the CCI was conceived as a research, education, and training network that will accelerate innovation and commercialization of cyber technologies, and cultivate Virginia’s deep talent base in the process.

“The mission of the CCI is to develop an innovative ecosystem of research, commercialization, and talent for Virginia,” said Jeff Reed, the Willis G. Worchester Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the interim executive director of the CCI. “This test bed will be a platform for Virginia’s talented students and researchers to work out solutions to some of the most significant challenges emerging in cyber and provide a crucial resource for industry and government groups at a pivotal moment in the evolution of the 5G infrastructure.” 

The CCI has regional nodes in southwestern, central, coastal, and Northern Virginia, each anchored by one of Virginia’s major research universities: Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, Old Dominion University, and George Mason University. A hub at the Virginia Tech Research Center - Arlington serves as a central headquarters for the network, which engages students and faculty from 39 institutions of higher education across the four nodes. 

Each node has a technical focus that reflects the strengths of its member institutions; together, they span a gamut of critical issues, one of the most pressing of which is the anticipated rollout of 5G technology.

5G is the tech community’s answer to the current patchwork of 4G and LTE networks, which are already groaning under the weight of ubiquitous smartphone use. The predicted advent of autonomous cars, wearable devices, and “smart” buildings and infrastructure, all collecting and trading data in real time, will far outpace the capacity of the aging cellular infrastructure.

“There isn’t really a cellular communications network that can handle that variety of connections,” said Ed Colbert, a research professor at the Hume Center for National Security and Technology and the director of the CCI test bed. 

Colbert explained that 5G wireless networks have several advantages: They offer faster connections that can handle larger volumes of information with fewer delays and can accommodate massive numbers of connections. 

“5G is going to be the fabric of the future when all these devices are connected,” he said. 

Figuring out the best way to deploy, connect with, and use those networks requires access to equipment that can simulate a realistic 5G environment. But that equipment is expensive and often beyond the reach of individual groups. That makes the CCI test bed, with its shared resources and collaborative structure, invaluable.

It will also be the only 5G test bed in the country focused squarely on wireless security. For all the promise 5G offers, it also presents unique vulnerabilities. And in a world where everything from cargo trucks to home security systems is connected, security failures could have grave consequences. 

“For 5G, the networks aren’t even live yet and there are already half a dozen interesting papers on security vulnerabilities. The time is ripe to create the infrastructure to test them,” said Roger Piqueras Jover, the chair of the test bed’s advisory board.

“The test bed will enable really exciting academic research and yield findings that will make 5G even more secure; it will also be a resource for technology startups working on improving 5G security,” Piqueras Jover said. 

Because the test bed will rely on open-source software, a wide variety of users will be able to access it. Researchers can explore innovative ideas; companies can test new technology; startups can demonstrate prototypes; and government agencies can conduct training exercises – all across the spectrum of 5G applications, from manufacturing to unmanned vehicles to smart-grid power systems. 

Experiments will unfold across the state in the CCI’s hub-and-node model, with the central computing handled in Arlington and high-speed fiber connections providing links to a wide variety of research assets and environments across Virginia, from the Port of Virginia to mobile test beds.

This dynamic structure allows researchers in one region to take advantage of capabilities available at other sites — for example, Shetty’s project will send real data from several hundred shipping containers in Virginia’s ports to a base station at Old Dominion and then on to the CCI node in Southwest Virginia for additional processing. 

When researchers or industry or government users approach the test bed with a project, the test bed’s expert staff will guide them through the process of designing and implementing practical, effective experiments; an advisory board will help direct strategy and set research priorities. 

The team is beginning to build the test bed’s collection of hardware and software; preliminary research, including Shetty’s, could begin as early as this winter. The test bed is expected to be fully equipped, with an organizational structure and strategy in place, by early 2021. 

— Written by Eleanor Nelsen

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