DARPA opens massive “Colosseum” to develop radical wireless applications

DARPA today said it the opened unique and massive testbed it will use as a battleground for researchers to build and test autonomous, intelligent and collaborative wireless technologies.

Calling it a “magnificent electronic arena” The Colosseum will be primarily used to host the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s $3.75 million three-year Spectrum Collaboration Challenge (SC2), which will pit researchers against each other to develop what the agency calls radically new technologies for “using and managing access to the electromagnetic spectrum in both military and civilian domains.”

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The idea of the challenge is to develop advanced machine-learning capabilities for wireless applications that optimize use of the wireless spectrum in ways not possible with today’s intrinsically inefficient approach of pre-allocating exclusive access to designated frequencies, DARPA stated. DARPA said the current practice of assigning fixed frequencies for various uses irrespective of actual, moment-to-moment demand is simply too inefficient to keep up with actual demand and threatens to undermine wireless reliability in the military as well as civilian applications.

“We are asking SC2 competitors to devise fundamentally new radio systems that can learn from each other in real-time, making the need for arduous radio specifications obsolete,” said SC2 program manager Paul Tilghman in a statement. “That’s a significant technical challenge but it carries with it the challenging need to develop a testbed that can put those radios through a set of realistic paces.“

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“Traditional radio systems are designed to ensure they operate only in pre-programmed ways, so it’s perfectly acceptable to test them in relatively small numbers and in simple environments,” Tilghman said. “By contrast, SC2 is asking a group of radios that weren’t designed to work together to learn how to optimize spectrum capacity in real-time, and is relying on artificial intelligence to find and take advantage of ‘gaps’ and other opportunities to increase efficiency. You can’t satisfactorily learn how to solve this puzzle unless you address it at scale, and that’s why the Colosseum is such a critical part of the solution.”

A few key features of The Colosseum:

  • The Colosseum testbed is a 256-by-256-channel RF channel emulator, which means it can calculate and simulate in real-time more than 65,000 channel interactions among 256 wireless devices.
  • it resides in a mere 30-foot by 20-foot server room on the campus of the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, MD,
  • Each simulated channel behaves as though it has a bandwidth (information content) of 100 the testbed supports 25.6 GHz of bandwidth in any instant.
  • Each channel’s transmission and reception frequency is tunable between 10 MHz (as in broadcast FM radio) and 6 GHz (as in WiFi).
  • The amount of digital RF data coursing through the Colosseum each second, more than 52 terabytes, exceeds the estimated amount of information contained in the entire print collection of the Library of Congress.
  • Engineers at APL assembled the Colosseum with 128, two-antenna, software defined radio (SDR) units built by National Instruments (NI). Emulating electromagnetic waves from these radios traversing the physical world is no small task. To tackle this, APL partnered with NI to put 64 field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) to the task. The FPGAs enable the Colosseum to make the SDRs behave as though they are operating in any of countless environments, each designed like an electromagnetic movie set.

The Colosseum testbed can emulate tens of thousands of possible interactions among hundreds of wireless communication devices—including cell phones, military radios, Internet-of-Things devices, and a litany of others—operating simultaneously in a square-kilometer expanse. That’s an area some 40 times that of the Roman Colosseum’s six acres.

DARPA said its Colosseum amounts to an artificial, high-fidelity holodeck that can simulate invisible, fast-as-light communication signals traversing, ricocheting, echoing, and otherwise making their way from transmitters to receivers wherever they might be in a wide variety of simulated environments. “The Colosseum can make the radios believe they are operating in an open field, a dense city, a suburban shopping mall, a desert, or any other scenario you can dream up,” Tilghman said.

DARPA said that among the toughest challenges of the testbed’s design has been the integration of leading-edge SDR technology with a cloud-computing-like environment, remotely accessible by multiple teams—30 of them for SC2’s first preliminary event this coming December—whose diverse AI and SDR frameworks need to be implemented simultaneously in the same testbed.

SC2 will advance in three year-long phases beginning in 2017 and finish in early 2020 with a live competition of finalists who have survived the two preliminary contests. The team whose radios collaborate most effectively with various types of other radios to dynamically optimize spectrum usage will walk away with a grand prize of $2M, second place gets $1M and third $750,000 the agency said.

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