Researchers Win $750k Grant from DARPA to Develop Seamless Communication Technology for Adverse Conditions

Scientists from IDLab, a core IMEC research group embedded in the universities of Ghent and Antwerp, are working on an innovative system for wireless networks to enable smooth communication even in crisis situations. The project recently received USD 750,000 from DARPA, the American Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, through the DARPA Grand Challenge.

The prestigious DARPA challenges are global competitions in which teams of researchers work around a specific theme to overcome a problem that affects the entire world. The team that develops the best solution to a specific technological challenge is awarded the DARPA cash prize, enabling them to develop their technology further. One challenge at the end of the 1960s, for example, was to connect computers with each other. This produced the ARPANET, the predecessor of the Internet as we know it today. More recently, the DARPA Grand Challenge also sparked the idea for Google’s self-driving car.

The most recent DARPA Challenge (2017-2019) requires scientists to develop the best possible wireless network system – one which also works reliably in crisis conditions. After an attack, current wireless technologies such as 4G can sometimes become unusable. Communication also plays an essential role in situations like forest fires, for example. But in areas with no 3G or 4G signal, it’s often impossible to exchange information and keep up with the situation as it evolves minute by minute.

Colleagues Ingrid Moerman (UGent/imec) and Steven Latré (UAntwerp/imec) entered the DARPA Challenge with their IDLab research group (embedded in the universities of Antwerp and Ghent and operating with the backing of imec). The project also sees them collaborating with scientists from Rutgers University (United States). The Belgian-American team put in an outstanding performance, coming in provisional fifth place after the first round of the competition.

The researchers used a ‘clean slate’ approach, which enables them to ignore the limitations of existing technologies and concentrate on developing their own communication system. The team decided to focus on artificial intelligence. Obviously it’s quite technical, but things can go wrong nowadays if the digital information sent out by different wireless devices ‘collides’ because the devices are using the same channel on the wireless spectrum. By teaching wireless devices like smartphones to figure out what other devices are doing and predict when they will use which channels, these collisions can be avoided. That way, it’s no longer necessary to make wireless communication plans or agreements in advance – something that’s impossible in crisis situations anyway.

To help develop the solution, DARPA has provided powerful radios and multiple true-to-life crisis scenarios in the world’s largest and most powerful wireless testing environment, known as the Colosseum. While the researchers are mainly working on fundamental research at the moment, practical applications are already twinkling on the horizon. The artificial intelligence-based solutions should be ready for use in the short term. The team is already working with Antwerp’s fire department, for example. For them it would be a huge advantage to be able to stream live images of fires to their command vehicles. And to get those images from the fire site to the command vehicle, for this they need to build a new wireless network. Click here for more information on the DARPA Spectrum Challenge.