Amanda Toman, Acting Principal Director, 5G to Future Generation Initiative, Department of Defense

Aug 08 2022

DOD Spreads 5G Technology Across the Country

Twelve military bases are testing various applications, hoping to attract more commercial vendors to the scene.

Imagine autonomous shuttle buses transporting military personnel around a base, or a smart warehouse using a distributed sensor network and robotics to track military vehicles. Or, picture a medic in the field receiving immersive training remotely.

All of that and more is becoming reality at military bases from Georgia to the Hawaiian Islands, as the Department of Defense prototypes 5G wireless connectivity, network interoperability and security, and 5G-enabled applications such as augmented reality.

5G, the fifth-generation wireless network, is expected to deliver much higher data speeds, greater network capacity and reliability, and increased availability. 5G’s lower latency will support applications such as machine-to-machine communications, autonomous vehicles and remote healthcare.

At each of the 12 bases, a network test bed is being installed to allow for the development of 5G-enabled applications to improve DOD capabilities ranging from logistics and telemedicine to communication on the battlefield.

Overseeing all of this work at the strategic level is Amanda Toman, acting principal director of DOD’s 5G to Future Generation Initiative, who calls the projects an opportunity for DOD and the country as a whole to push their technological capabilities to the next level.

“The thought was that, by injecting some money into the U.S. ecosystem, we could be a unique test bed for companies to test out private 5G stand-alone networks and provide opportunities for new companies to demonstrate capabilities for the department,” Toman says. “A lot of what we’re doing obviously has a military flavor to it, but a lot of it also crosses over into commercial or industry applications as well.”

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DOD Wants to Influence Vendors' Future Standards

These test bed projects work with big players such as AT&T and Verizon, as well as a variety of smaller application vendors. “It has definitely been a learning experience,” Toman says, “and a bit more challenging than we initially thought it would be when we set out.”

One goal of the DOD’s strategic plan is to influence standards and policy by developing security around 5G and then leveraging some of the technology development as those technologies go online, she says.

“We wanted to engage not just with industry -partners, but also with international partners,” she says. “How can we team with our allies and partners to get a critical mass to push standards and technologies that align with our priorities and objectives?”

Part of Toman’s job is coordinating a variety of efforts across DOD and the federal government. She and her team meet monthly with a departmentwide 5G working group. In March, they kicked off a 5G cross-functional team that works on research and development, requirements generation, standards and policy, and acquisitions.

“5G provides an opportunity to create an open architecture, breaking up the 5G core and the 5G radio access network and potentially having interoperable systems,” she says.

“If you can have a radio unit come from one vendor, a distributed unit from another and a central unit from a third, and have those open interfaces, you are creating a larger and more diverse vendor ecosystem here in the U.S.”

That is an aspect of 5G that is appealing to the DOD from a procurement standpoint, she says.

DOD also has one eye on the future, Toman adds: “We have to think about how we can be agile so that when we are faced with 5G Plus or 6G, we can rapidly evolve and leverage the most technologically advanced capabilities available.”

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Base-Level 5G Initiatives Include Warehouse Logistics

Marine Corps Logistics Base Albany, in Georgia, is working with a group of industry partners on a 5G smart warehouse initiative that will create a flexible, open-standard 5G test bed and applications to improve fleet storage and maintenance.

Another 5G smart warehouse project is underway at Naval Base Coronado in San Diego. The project uses all U.S.-based manufacturers of equipment and solutions. For instance, Cisco is providing the 5G core.

“These smart warehousing efforts have been described as taking logistics from The Flintstones to the 21st -century,” says Deb Stanislawski, director of the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense, Research and Engineering’s 5G Tranche Prototyping and Experimentation.

Stanislawski adds that the warehouse projects “are about how we adapt, adopt or influence how commercial technologies are developed for military use.”

The Marine Corps experiment is focused on management and maintenance of ground combat equipment, whereas the Coronado effort evaluates technologies used in warehouses for both afloat and expeditionary forces, she says.

“Commercial solutions give DOD only part of what it needs. We have unique challenges associated with movement of equipment not only in terms of storage, but also in when we deploy, and each service is quite -different in their warehousing and inventory requirements,” she says.

Other military branches will eventually be able to take advantage of the work being done at bases in Georgia and California, she adds.

60

The number of 5G-related federal initiatives

Source: CIO.gov, “Federal Mobility Group Unveils 5G Testing Framework,” Nov. 18, 2020

5G Sparks the Expansion of Military Telemedicine

At Joint Base San Antonio, a project on 5G augmented reality for medical training and telemedicine will use commercially available 5G-enabled augmented reality telemedicine capabilities to support remote medicine use cases, Stanislawski says.

The first use case involves telementoring, in which a physician mentee at a remote location can call a medical -specialist for assistance on a complex case. The mentee wears an augmented reality headset that creates the perception of the mentor being in the room.

The prototype provides the mentor with complete situational awareness for decision-making, using physiological data collected from patients, sensors, high-definition video images and a feed from electronic health records. The application supports mentoring at medical clinics, triage sites and health facilities, and it can connect with health teams at forward operating locations and partner nation facilities, she adds.

The second use case will allow medical trainees to participate remotely in realistic and immersive training via 5G-enabled augmented reality, ensuring that medics are prepared for the battlefield.

“That access to specific medical expertise anywhere, anytime via 5G-enabled AR will provide better medical care at remote locations and reduce the need to transport patients for specialized medical care,” Stanislawski says. “So the impact is that both of these prototypes will save lives.”

These projects come with their own challenges. “We’ve been charged with partnering with industry to adopt commercial technology for DOD use,” Stanislawski says. “Keeping up with the pace of commercial technology development while still modifying commercial products to fit DOD requirements has been extremely challenging.

“Significant changes must be made to ensure security, resiliency and tactical functionality of our last-mile communication systems, as well as the survivability of those systems,” she adds.

“The next-generation cellular piece is a game-changing advancement in the way we move data, and it represents an opportunity to provide data at the speed of relevance that we cannot afford to pass up.”

LEARN MORE: How can 5G benefit your federal agency? 

5G Can Enable Stronger Computing on the Edge

In addition to dynamic spectrum sharing and cybersecurity, high-priority use cases for the DOD involve tactical edge communications, Toman says. At the Fort Irwin National Training Center in California, the Army is focusing on mobile 5G wireless connectivity that will enable forward operating command posts to become more difficult to detect on the battlefield.

The telecom industry is watching these DOD prototype efforts, and many of the key 5G players are involved in the projects, says Andrew Thiessen, head of 5G/xG engagement for MITRE.

DOD’s investments are helping solve problems that will benefit commercial users later; for instance, the shortage of 5G-enabled devices, says Thiessen.

“Finding a 5G-enabled sensor to track packages in a warehouse is difficult,” he says. “The DOD is identifying areas where there isn’t any marketplace capability and is doing the marketplace creation by identifying some of these challenges up front and spending money that will incentivize vendors to develop the capability.”

Jason Leigh, a research manager for IDC’s mobility team responsible for 5G and mobile operator research, recommends patience with these 5G projects. “We’re in the toddler years of 5G,” he says. “It wants to run, but if it goes too fast, it’s going to fall.”

He adds that everybody, including the DOD, is trying to figure out if the promise of 5G resides beyond the smartphone; 5G is less about getting a 1 gigabit connection on a smartphone and more about the overall digital transformation of the economy.

“5G’s capability to deliver that transformational experience by itself is somewhat limited until you start to stitch it together with artificial intelligence and new form factors like augmented reality, enabling things like automation,” he says. “I think that’s where a lot of these DOD proofs of concept and experiments are starting to push the envelope.”

The level of enthusiasm on the military bases working on the prototypes is considerable, Toman says.

“All of us are very excited about the opportunity to demonstrate 5G capabilities and then work with the services to take it forward,” she says. “That’s the end goal: How do we ensure that the investments we’ve made — maybe not all of them, but a lot of them — transition to operational end users?”

T.J. Kirkpatrick (Toman); Jelena83/Getty Images (background)

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