Final preparations are being made in Raleigh for what will be one of the nation's first open-air, large-scale experimental Wi-Fi networks.
The $198,000 CentMesh project at the Centennial Campus of N.C. State University was financed by the U.S. Army Research Office, which has an office in Research Triangle Park. CentMesh is slated to begin operating this month, more than two years into planning, programming and testing.
It will cover several hundred acres, with the option of disconnecting from the public Internet in experiments using sensitive data or experiments that could disrupt regular email traffic on campus.
The purpose of the project is to study network security, jamming, encryption and other applications that could one day be used by soldiers in combat, paramedics during emergencies or pediatricians performing routine physical checkups.
Researching al fresco, as opposed to using a controlled indoor environment, will allow N.C. State professors and students to simulate how complex networks perform in real-life situations.
"One of the key things is to have a realistic environment," said Associate Vice Chancellor Dennis Kekas. "As far as we know no one has done anything with this degree of flexibility and scale."
CentMesh will function as a creative playground for professors and students, rather than being tied up in contract research for the U.S. military or corporate clients. The research would be published in academic journals for public benefit, rather than be treated as closely guarded intellectual property, said one of the researchers, Rudra Dutta, a computer science professor at N.C. State.
N.C. State researchers have already lined up a dozen experiments they would like to conduct on the network in the coming year, Dutta said.
The Army is investing in the project as a potential long-term payoff for combatants, field medics and others in tactical roles. The Army Research Office's computing sciences division in RTP sponsors academic research in technologies that could one day be adapted to aid a soldier's access to data during war or enhance his or her situational awareness, and boost weapons system performance.
Cliff Wang, the Army Research Office's CentMesh program manager in RTP, said N.C. State's experimental Wi-Fi network could help develop "new theories, new scientific foundations" for the military and for society in general.
"It could potentially have a huge payoff down the road," Wang said.
What makes CentMesh different from a conventional Wi-Fi network, Dutta said, is that it is driven by open-source software that can be modified or rewritten to meet the specific requirements of researchers. The network's 14 wireless access points are designed to take over for nodes that fail as a result of hacking or jamming.
"It's all open source," Dutta said. "They can trash it, write their own, make changes."
One research focus, which could provide a big boost for emergency communications networks that operate on batteries, will be devising ways to save energy and bandwidth.
Dutta said that redundant wireless routers eat up a lot of both, so the trick is to devise a system that puts the routers to "sleep" until they are needed for backup relays. In Dutta's planned experiment, the routers would be timed to shut off once the email or data moves to the next access point in the network.
Another potential experiment, he said, would be equipping the network with multiple sensors to monitor environmental conditions such as temperature and air quality. These measures could be overlaid on monitor readings of an individual's heart rate and blood pressure. Such applications could be used to detect earlier some problems experienced by elderly people or people with asthma or heart conditions.