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A non-profit publication of the Office of the University Relations of Virginia Tech,
including The Conductor, a special section of the Spectrum printed 4 times a year

Wireless projects funded

By Lynn Nystrom

Spectrum Volume 17 Issue 21 - February 23, 1995

Two grants totaling $2.5 million to improve wireless communication technology were awarded to Virginia Tech's Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group (MPRG).

Robert Templin, president of the Virginia Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), announced the grants to an audience of economic development and business leaders, government officials, and members of the higher education community at a breakfast earlier this week celebrating National Engineers' Week.

The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), formerly DARPA, has awarded the MPRG a $1.7-million contract over the next three years. The Office of National Drug Control Policy is funding another $800,000 for the MPRG to develop a new surveillance and tracking software for installing wireless communication systems in law enforcement and military applications.

The aim of the new ARPA project is to develop a revolutionary approach to wireless communications. The work will combine new technologies in computer chips, antennas, and digital signal processing. The result will allow wireless devices to be extremely miniature, but able to adapt to interference in the radio channel, explains Ted Rappaport, a professor of electrical engineering (EE) and a founding member of the MPRG.

This approach will allow the number of radio devices that can share a single radio frequency to increase, thereby adding to the capacity of the wireless users in a specific region of space, Rappaport says.

"The research has the ability to lead to wireless `post-it notes'--microminiature radio cards that can become as widespread as paper is today," he adds.

Within the next five years, the five MPRG researchers, Rappaport and his colleagues, Brian Woerner, Jeff Reed, Peter Athanus, and Prab Koushik, all of the Bradley Department of Electrical Engineering, believe they can provide a wireless receiver that will be marked by a 100-fold increase in computing speed over today's fixed instruction set processors with equivalent power requirements; a revolutionary multi-stage receiver that reduces interference and is able to work on multi-paths; and a novel technique for steering an antenna.

The proposed new wireless system will be the most adaptable of those on the marketplace. Each portable unit will be an intelligent machine in itself, eliminating the need for the large computing tasks required by control from a base station or a mobile telephone switching office.

The MPRG project for the Office of the National Drug Control Policy will bring a new wireless tool to law enforcement agencies. Wireless technology will play an increasingly important role in surveillance and tracking techniques of the future, Rappaport says.

The researchers propose to develop commercial software tools for law enforcement radio system design, location, and vehicle tracking strategies. For example, the software will be able to define the best locations for receiving posts within a city to ensure the reliable tracking of a suspected criminal. This surveillance method could replace the more costly vigilance currently conducted from aircraft.

Innovative work is the hallmark of the members of the MPRG. One of Rappaport's inventions is the SIRCIM, an indoor radio channel simulator that has been adopted by more than 100 companies and universities. In 1990 he received the Marconi Young Scientist Award for his contributions in indoor radio communications, and he was named a National Science Foundation Presidential Faculty Fellow in 1992.

Other members of the MPRG have equally impressive credentials. Woerner, the current director of the MPRG, received a National Science Foundation Research Initiation Award. Reed developed the concept of using time-dependent filtering to improve communications. Athanus verified fundamental concepts for adaptive computing when he built a system called PRISM that serves as an experimental testbed for reconfigurable computing. Koushik is the co-inventor of several software products, and is leading several software development projects at MPRG.

Last year, the CIT established a Technology Development Center to further the research and development of these young faculty members. The TDC for Wireless Telecommunications Systems, directed by Charles Bostian, a chaired professor of EE, identifies new business opportunities.

Wireless businesses already proliferate in the Roanoke and New River Valleys. Grayson Electronics and Ericsson GE in Lynchburg, ITT Galium Arsenide in Roanoke, and TSR in Blacksburg, sold last year to Grayson, are benefactors of the research being conducted at Virginia Tech.

TSR began with eight employees as a spin-off company of the MPRG. When Grayson purchased TSR, it created a Blacksburg Research and Development Center for the company. As the owners of TSR, Rappaport and his wife, Brenda, donated $50,000 from its sale back to higher education. Half of the money was provided to Virginia Tech for scholarships in the wireless area and the other half was donated to their alma mater, Purdue.

The MPRG will be five years old this June. During its first year of operation, MPRG's annual research budget was $500,000. Eleven industrial sponsors had signed on with the MPRG by 1991, due to Rappaport's tenacity in knocking on doors. Today, the MPRG operates on a $1.5-million annual budget, and it has 30 industrial and government sponsors.