AT&T partners with military for maritime 5G, edge compute experiments

Research will utilize mmWave 39 GHz and mid-band LTE spectrum. (Getty Images)

AT&T has a new agreement with the U.S. military that includes experiments to connect unmanned robots, aerial drones and autonomous underwater vehicles in a single system, assisted by 5G and edge computing.

It’s a three-year collaborative research and development agreement with the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS) to support a variety of 5G-focused experiments at NPS facilities. NPS is the Department of the Navy’s applied research university.

The main aim of the agreement is maritime technology solutions for national defense and homeland security, but could also benefit commercial industries like shipping, oil and gas, and recreational boating.

Research is slated to take place at Camp Roberts in South Monterey County, and to a lesser degree on the NPS main campus and at a beach lab north of Monterey, California. Part of the agreement involves NPS’ Sea Land Air Military Research (SLAMR) program, with tests happening in the SLAMR’s multi-domain laboratory.

Experiments and research will utilize millimeter wave spectrum in the 39 GHz band and mid-band LTE, according to an AT&T spokesperson.

“5G and multi-access edge computing capabilities are increasingly important in our personal lives and even more important to our warfighters,” said Mike Galbraith, Department of the Navy chief digital & innovation officer, in a statement. “The collaboration between the Naval Postgraduate School and AT&T will help us explore better, faster means of collecting, disseminating, and analyzing data at the tactical edge, which is vital to maintaining and exploiting battlespace awareness.”

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AT&T said it’s already setting up 5G network infrastructure at NPS, including a tower and short-range antenna on a pre-fabricated pad that will live at the SLAMR beach lab. The first 5G and multi-access edge compute (MEC) nodes will be installed and ready to use during the first quarter of 2022.

MEC servers will be located in an NPS datacenter and NPS will determine who or what devices can utilize the MEC services and features, according to an AT&T spokesperson. So the MEC service is private to NPS, but it’s not a fully private 5G network specific to the facility.  

“The functionality of MEC allows the Navy to determine what of their traffic stays locally, within their NPS facility or the beach area,” the spokesperson noted, adding that the MEC does have certain mechanisms to limit the ability of other users to access the antennas.

Low latency via locally processed edge compute is expected to help speed research computing tasks.

AT&T and NPS anticipate identifying advanced technology solutions like “a connected system of unmanned and autonomous vehicles that can improve critical elements of national defense, such as multi-domain situational awareness, command and control, training, logistics, predictive maintenance and data analytics.”

Research trials also will incorporate AI, robotics, IoT, machine learning, data analytics and smart base solutions.

Eventually the SLAMR program wants to have a facility for command and aquatics operations that can perform localized unmanned aerial, surface, and underwater robotic vehicle applications. AT&T said the facility, as well as some experimental vehicles, are expected to be connected via 5G and edge compute services from the carrier.

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Student-led research projects are also part of the joint effort. For example, NPS Master’s Degree students plan to research using VR and AR to support combat medical care for situations where a medical evacuation isn’t doable. Another project focuses on 5G-powered autonomous systems in the water, specifically in the littoral zone (which is the part of sea, lake or river that is close to the shore).

“Innovation occurs at the seams and intersections of practice and expertise and NPS provides an innovation hub where this applied 5G research can occur,” said Retired Vice Admiral Ann E. Rondeau, President, Naval Postgraduate School, in a statement. “AT&T’s experience with the existing 5G infrastructure on the Monterey Peninsula will facilitate our collaboration on the next generation of mobile networks.”