TTU Electrical Engineering Team Wins Wildcard in DARPA Spectrum Challenge

Think about all the things your smartphone is capable of; now, think about a smartphone that can be used as a walkie-talkie, pager, home security monitor, remote control, or a device to pick up broadcast radio or live news feeds from around the world. In other words, imagine a smartphone that can be used for practically anything that involves radio transmissions or satellite signals.

Tennessee Tech Electrical Engineering professor Adam Anderson and student Brett Witherspoon (Birmingham, Ala., B.S. in E.E. ’13) have been conducting research in Software Defined Radio systems, and their efforts have paid off with a wildcard slot in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency Spectrum Challenge.

SDR radios do the work of all the conventional systems of a radio with software and continually hunt for wavelengths that aren’t already cluttered with radio traffic. Also known as cognitive radio, these devices can also determine their own location, make note of spectrum use by nearby devices, adjust output power, and alter their own transmission parameters for enhanced performance and use of the broadcast spectrum.

The researchers also won a trip to Arlington, Va. in September, and competition against 17 other international teams. The win also comes with $5000 to spend toward travel expenses, and another $5000 to fund new radio gear for the lab.

“My favorite part about being a professor is research,” said Anderson, “coming up with ideas and taking them from the back of a napkin to a graphic of transmitting wireless data over the air. Potentially, this could end up being huge commercially…and even outside of commercial uses, it could be really helpful for emergency responders in crisis conditions, allowing fire, EMS and police to all communicate instead of being on different systems. Or for the military, it could make it much easier to for units to communicate in the field. Really, the implications of this technology could be huge once the price comes down.”

As things stand now, it’s enormously expensive to buy a small slice of bandwidth; the bandwidth used by 4G phone systems cost billions of dollars, and an American cell phone will still as useless as a paperweight in Europe. This technology has the potential to change that scenario, with an entire 5G network as a possibility.

“If I remember right, I think that DARPA actually had one of the first software defined radio projects, “ said Witherspoon, “to develop something where all their own radios could communicate with each other inside the agency. The goal was to develop a standardized software that would work across the board for their systems. It was one of the first SDR funding programs that was out there, a number of years ago.”

The Spectrum Challenge will grant cash prizes for the winners of each tournament at the Preliminary and Final levels. Winners of the Preliminary Challenge will each receive $25,000, with winners of the Final Challenge receiving $50,000.