Imagine being a police officer responding to an emergency and having to react to messages from five radios in your car. That’s a nightmare many first responders face when they have to monitor transmissions from multiple emergency service agencies.

Virginia Tech Alumni Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering Charles Bostian is working to simplify communications during a crisis by developing software based radios. His goal: a single, handheld device that scans multiple bands and configures itself to work with any public safety waveforms, addressing what is known in the emergency services industry as the interoperability problem.

Bostian and his students have developed a working prototype and are moving towards bringing this device to market thanks, in part, to support from the Anritsu Company that has enabled them to access equipment they could not otherwise afford.

Meanwhile, another Virginia Tech professor, Jeff Reed, who heads the Wireless @ Virginia Tech research initiative, is using support from Tektronix Inc. on other research on software defined radios. Both Reed and Bostian are developing technology for what are commonly called "cognitive" or "smart" radios. These software defined radios are aware of their environment, take action based on that awareness, and learn from the process, remembering what worked well and what did not so that they can perform better when faced with a similar situation in the future. Virginia Tech is a leader in this emerging field. Under the auspices of Wireless @ Virginia Tech, some 100 students, most of them at the graduate level, are researching ways to improve methods of wireless communication.

Among the research centers under the Wireless @ Virginia Tech umbrella are the Center for Wireless Telecommunications and the Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group. Teams representing each of those centers recently took top honors in the first Smart Radio Challenge, an international engineering contest held in Denver, Colo., in conjunction with the 2007 Software Defined Radio Forum Technical Conference.

A team, for which Bostian was faculty advisor, won the grand prize. The other Virginia Tech team, led by Carl Dietrich, a research assistant professor of electrical engineering, won for the best software radio design.

The challenge at the competition was to develop a radio that is able not only to find and use unused spectrum, but to recognize when the frequency needs to be used by someone else. The latter ability is especially important if an effort to use available spectrum more efficiently is to succeed. There is interest in opening up some parts of emergency-services spectrum to other users at off peak times. But that is only likely to be acceptable if non-emergency users can exit those frequencies quickly when emergencies arise.

Reed, the Wireless @ Virginia Tech director, said private support is an important component of wireless technology research at Virginia Tech because it can be used to fill in funding gaps in a way that other types of support cannot.

"I use the rule of thumb that one dollar of gift is worth three dollars of sponsored research and the reason is because of the flexibility of the money," Reed said. "It allows us to do things we can’t do [with federal funding] because of federal contract stipulations, so it’s worth three times as much to us." Increasing the amount of private support for research is one of the major goals of the comprehensive fundraising campaign Virginia Tech launched Oct. 20.

With a total goal of $1 billion, The Campaign for Virginia Tech: Invent the Future marks a new era in private fundraising for the most comprehensive university in the Commonwealth of Virginia. The campaign’s funding priorities target five goals: academic excellence, the undergraduate experience, research facilities, Virginia Tech and the community, and the President’s Discovery Fund, a pool of unrestricted funds.

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