The 5G Living Lab at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar 

4 mn read

“It all started with an aspirational vision.” That is what retired Marine LtCol Brandon Newell will tell you when asked about installing the first ultra-wideband 5G small cell on a DoD base. What’s ironic is that the vision had nothing to do with 5G. The origin story of the 5G Living Lab at Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) Miramar actually begins with autonomous vehicles. But I’m getting ahead of myself. 

A Better Business Model

For years, Newell had been driving toward the more rapid adoption of commercial dual-use technologies for military applications. However he, like many, realized the need for the military to rapidly adopt emerging technology. Newell realized the military would have to abandon many of the traditional methods of research, development, and prototyping. Newell set out to demonstrate a new business model, one that never begins with contract negotiations or legal review. But rather with a conversation about a future vision. So in 2018, he and his team embarked on a prototyping effort for autonomous logistics delivery systems for the battlefield. Newell created the Autonomous Vehicle Proving Grounds (AVPG) at MCAS Miramar. 

To fully understand the extent of Newell’s vision one has to consider the changes in R&D investments in the United States since World War II. Previously, the DoD was the epicenter of innovation, and private industry would spin out technology for commercial use. Now, companies are pouring billions of dollars into the creation of the next game-changing technologies.

The federal government must ride this commercial wave of investment. The DoD does not have the resources to conduct the type of research or prototyping efforts required to keep pace with our adversaries in the information age. So it must look to the industry for assistance and inspiration. The DoD should be walking side by side with industry partners. Using that partnership to understand industries’ market forecasting. As well as, how it could be adapted for military application. But the DoD has put up a wall of regulations and policies that discourages companies from engaging with it in this way. And because of this wall, the DoD is hardly a good customer. It is apparent that companies do not have to do business with the military to be successful. So then, what do we do? 

“We’re Open for Business!”

With the AVPG industry partners could now use the physical land space on MCAS Miramar to test their autonomous systems. That caught the attention of Qualcomm — a global leader in the design of semiconductors, software, and services for wireless technologies — who was excited to leverage a testing site down the road from their headquarters in San Diego. The only ask from the government was to learn from Qualcomm’s engineers and business development experts. It didn’t take long for Newell to learn how important 5G would be. Which were the advantages of using 5G on connected and autonomous vehicles he would be prototyping. 

Through this new relationship with Qualcomm and existing connections to the city of San Diego, Newell was introduced to Verizon’s Public Sector Team. Together they built a vision for 5G on DoD installations. A research and development agreement enabled Verizon to install their commercial 5G non-standalone network on MCAS Miramar. With the purpose of creating a living lab. In this non-sterile environment, the DoD is learning more about what 5G can enable for installation modernization and resilience. It is beginning to unlock imaginations about how to leverage cellular communications on the battlefield. 

More than an Emerging Technology

Newell’s efforts looked into the capabilities that 5G could enable. In early 2021, for example, he led a 90-day pilot centered on operating an autonomous shuttle for urban mobility. Performers leveraged Verizon’s 5G network to upload massive amounts of shuttle data to be processed in the cloud. Which was the first logistics delivery application of an unmanned shuttle on a DoD installation. 

Future use cases include using the 5G network for energy communications (wirelessly linking MCAS Miramar’s disparate energy devices into a secure microgrid), public safety (intelligent gate security, counter intrusion, and force protection), and additional pilots for autonomous logistics delivery across the installation. Newell created an environment at MCAS Miramar where the government can learn from industry. Industry partners can learn about defense use cases. Additionally, where business to business opportunities are realized. The 5G Living Lab is about so much more than 5G. 

Eager and Willing

The story of the 5G Living Lab began with an aspirational vision but it was fueled by the frustration of a slow-moving bureaucracy. Traditional models of conducting research and development and prototyping projects were simply inadequate for keeping pace with commercial innovation. Newell recognized that the DoD had to take a different approach in its engagement with industry to compete with our adversaries. Consequently, commercial partners helped redefine research and development by working with an eager and willing government collaborator. 

5G
The NavalX SoCal Tech Bridge team poses in front of the autonomous electric shuttles called Olli on Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego, California, March 31, 2021. From left to right: LtCol (ret) Brandon Newell, the former director of technology and partnerships for the Marine Corps Installation neXt program; Marissa Brand, Program Lead for Next Strategic Technology Evaluation Program; Ana Borja, a Naval Information Warfare Systems Command representative; and Maj. Steve Harvey, the former director of the NavalX SoCal Tech Bridge. The 5G-connected, 3D-printed, autonomous electric shuttle is currently on a pilot program on MCAS and delivers goods throughout the base. (U.S Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Krysten Houk)


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