The 5G Living Lab at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar
“It all started with an aspirational vision” is what retired Marine Lieutenant Colonel Brandon Newell will tell you if asked about the installation of the first ultra wide band 5G small cell on a Defense Department (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. He realized years ago, as many do now, that for the military to more rapidly adopt emerging technology, it 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 a conversation about a future vision. So in 2018, as 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 industry for assistance and inspiration. The DoD should be walking side by side with industry partners, learning about their market forecasting and how they think it could be adapted to a 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!”
The AVPG was designed to send a signal to industry partners that they could 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. And it didn’t take long for Newell to learn how important 5G would be to the connected and autonomous vehicles he would be prototyping.
Through this new relationship with Qualcomm and the 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 cooperative research and development agreement enabled Verizon to install their commercial 5G non-standalone network on MCAS Miramar for the purposes 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, and is beginning to unlock imaginations about how to leverage cellular communications on the battlefield.
More than an Emerging Technology
All of Newell’s efforts in 5G are centered on learning what capabilities 5G can 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 in what 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 micro grid), 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, and 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.