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Drones and Stronger WiFi Could be Coming to South Bend and Bring Jobs with Them


This story was written by Danielle Kennedy, and originally aired on WSBT 22 on Monday, March 20, 2017. 

The project, SBXG, is part of a collaboration with Notre Dame’s Wireless Institute. Researchers are creating advanced wireless technology to produce the next generation of Wi-Fi and network drone control. That means drones could one day be controlled by wireless technology, not a pilot. Officials say they are working towards “test-bed platform” at city-scale for cutting edge wireless research.

“By allowing them access to this research network, we hope that a lot of these companies start setting up operations and sending their teams to spend substantial amounts of time here,” said South’s Bend Chief Innovation Officer Santiago Garces. “There are also entrepreneurs and people within the community that start getting ideas of technologies or opportunities that they can leverage,” he added. 

The city and the university are asking the National Science Foundation to fund the project with a roughly $25-million grant.

“South Bend is the first place ever where control of a Wi-Fi-based drone was passed from one base station to another. That’s actually pretty significant from a research perspective,” South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg said.

There are two base stations within the city right now, but researchers hope to have 25 base stations across the city someday. One of them is on top of the O’Brien Recreation Center.

“When you imagine some of these applications Amazon and UPS are talking about, drone-based package delivery and so on, you’re not going to have an operator manually operating every drone in the future,” said Notre Dame Wireless Institute’s Nick Laneman.

Garces says it’s an advancement that will benefit the entire city because drones can go where it’s unwise to send people. He says it could also help first responders act quicker in emergency situations. “Anytime you don’t want to put a city employee in a dangerous situation or that it may take too much time to get a person there, like river rescue as well,” Garces said.

Researchers can track data from the drones just about anywhere. For their work, the Notre Dame scientists use a research truck powered entirely by wind and solar energy.

Researchers say they’re also developing the next generation of Wi-Fi called 802.11ax. They say it could be used for things like smartphones. The goal is to make it more efficient and faster than it is right now.

“What we’re at the cusp of here is a new chapter in wireless. We believe we can position South Bend to be a test-bed for piloting some of the most compelling wireless technology that’s going to be brought forward,” Buttigieg said.

He is hoping that the technology of the future will benefit the future of the city.

“There’s going to be a lot of high-paying jobs, and there’s going to be more people coming to do research and whatnot. I think that’s important,” Garces said.

Four cities will be awarded NSF grants over the next several years. The first is expected to be announced in January.

— Danielle Kennedy, WSBT-22