5G testbed in Virginia targets wireless security

Initial research could start as early as later this year, with the testbed expected to be fully equipped and operational by early 2021. (Virginia Tech)

A new 5G testbed under development in Virginia, anchored regionally across the state by its four major research universities, plans to focus squarely on wireless security for the connected future, and will provide resources for researchers, industry and government projects.

The testbed is a flagship project of the Commonwealth Cyber Initiative (CCI), which launched in 2018 and has regional nodes in across the state at Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, Old Dominion University and George Mason University. Central headquarters for the network is located at the Virginia Tech Research Center – Arlington, which involves students and faculty from 39 higher education institutions across the four nodes.  According to Virginia Tech, the testbed also includes 65 private companies, four federal partners and 45 other regional partners.

Researchers at Virginia’s universities will have access to state-of-the art 5G equipment, and will share resources among the collaborative testbed, exploring vulnerabilities and solutions for different 5G applications such as manufacturing, unmanned vehicles and smart-grid power systems.

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Hardware and software are currently being collected, and initial research could start as early as later this year, with the testbed expected to be fully equipped and operational by early 2021.

“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, in a statement. “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.” 

While 5G networks provide several advantages, including ability to handle massive numbers of connected devices, finding the optimal way to deploy, connect with, and utilize those networks requires expensive equipment to simulate realistic 5G environments, a cost which is often out of reach of individual groups, CCI said.

The hub-and-node model will allow experiments to happen across the state, and enable researchers in one region to take advantage of capabilities at other site locations. Central computing takes place in Arlington while fiber connections link a range of research assets and sites around the state, for example, from the Port of Virginia to mobile test beds.

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The testbed will rely on open-source software, so in addition to researchers, will also invite companies to test new technology, startups to develop prototypes and government agencies to conduct training exercises.

“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,” said Roger Piqueras Jover, the chair of the test bed’s advisory board.

An early example of research that will happen within the testbed is using wireless connectivity and sensors to address data needs of the cargo shipping industry.  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, will take on a project that seeks to provide real-time information on cargo loads, including information about location, and fullness of shipping containers.

“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,” said Shetty. “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.” 

A potential solution is to use wireless, battery-powered sensors affixed to thousands of cargo containers to collect and share data. However, handling vast amounts of connections requires robust wireless connectivity, that must also be secure.

Shetty’s project, which could start in the second half of this year, will rely on the 5G testbed’s unique structure to send real-time data from hundreds of shipping containers in Virginia’s ports to a base station at Old Dominion and then on to another node in the southwest region for additional processing.

The CCI testbed project isn’t just looking at shipping, but will also investigate potential 5G vulnerabilities across transportation, healthcare, energy, and national security.

“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 Piqueras Jover.

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