Verizon has brought 5G to two more University Labs, one at Caltech and the other at Penn State. The carrier is using these labs to innovate on 5G use cases with university students and faculty.

Nicki Palmer, chief product development officer at Verizon, said not only do the labs allow for experimenting with some cool new technologies that can use 5G, but they also create a talent pipeline for potential new Verizon employees.

Verizon’s news about Caltech and Penn State comes on the heels of similar partnerships with Arizona State University, the University of Illinois and the University of Michigan’s Mcity.

Palmer said every deployment with a university is different. “We do come with a model, but it really depends on what the university is doing, what the state of densification at that campus is. It always comes down to meeting with the university.”

She said some deployments look like a 5G private network; sometimes a university wants the deployment to be connected to Verizon’s public network; and sometimes the deployment involves mobile edge compute (MEC).

“I would say the majority of them tend to be connected to the public network,” said Palmer. “If we deploy mmWave on campus or in an innovation hub, sometimes that’s an indoor system that could be a private network.”

Testing drones with 5G

One of the trials it’s conducting at Caltec aims to help drones detect and respond to changing weather conditions in real time.

To recreate the ever-shifting environmental conditions that drones face in the real world, the lab features a three-story-tall aerodrome with more than 2,500 tiny computer-controlled fans (see photo above). The fan wall allows engineers to simulate everything from a light gust to a gale. It can also be tilted 90 degrees to simulate vertical take offs and landings. The custom fan wall was designed and built by Caltech graduate students.

Asked what 5G has to do with the drone testing, Palmer said, “Those drones have to communicate. In a captive environment you can use Wi-Fi. But out in the wild you need a relatively big network, that’s where 5G comes in. Drones work today on our 4G network.”

She said the lower latency and high speeds of 5G allow drones to send and receive information to an edge compute system and not have the processing done on the drone itself.

For the Caltec deployment, Verizon introduced MEC. The computing hardware has been offloaded from the drone, and 5G allows for near real-time interpretation of weather data and flight adjustments.

Palmer didn’t say if Verizon is working with a particular MEC partner at Caltech. The carrier has made public announcements about MEC work with AWS and Microsoft Azure. “We’ll continue to have different sorts of MEC arrangement for public and private,” she said.

Grooming talent

It’s a well-reported fact that there are labor shortages in the U.S. in many fields including engineering and programming. “Our work with universities is very rarely one dimensional,” said Palmer. “We also pick universities because we want to grow talent. The people that end up working on these projects work side-by-side with our engineers.”

She said these college students are great candidates for future positions at Verizon. “There’s a war on tech talent happening right now. We need this next generation to have that real world experience.”

In addition to its work with universities, Verizon also has six Innovation Hubs where it works with startup companies on 5G use cases.

“You need to have all of these vectors of innovation,” Palmer said. “You can’t pinpoint where the next thing will come from.”

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