WARP: Accelerating Wireless Technology Development
Prior to 2006, any attempt at investigating wireless technology, developing a new algorithm for propagation, or even trying for a whole new standard, all shared one thing in common: The phenomenal expense for the research team.
You see, prior to that year, no open-source chipset designs existed. If you wanted to even tweak the algorithms involved in propagation, you had to build all the Wi-Fi hardware yourself, from scratch, to do so. Obviously this kind of fabrication is expensive, and greatly limited the field of researchers able to afford to work on connectivity technologies, to only those with deep pockets. Of course another side effect was that incremental improvements, things that help connectivity but are unlikely themselves to produce massive profits, tended to get ignored.
Rice University was the first to decide enough was enough, and to begin construction on a set of generic, yet advanced wireless circuit boards. An open source set that could be reprogrammed, or slotted together in different sequences to create almost total freedom in Wi-Fi system design. The upshot being it is a lot more economical to buy three or four sets of programmable circuit boards, gain full free access to the coding inside, and then play with that, then it is to fabricate your own purpose-built boards.
It is essentially a RAID platform, but for hardware and embedded systems rather than pure software, allowing an almost endless swapping and reprogramming of equipment, testing multiple different designs in the same afternoon - completely unheard of before. It is still necessary to fabricate your own boards for the finished product of course, but this approach has the tremendous advantage that by the time you fabricate your final prototypes, you know with absolute certainty that it is going to work as you hoped (barring electronic failure on the prototype of course).
Ashutosh Sabharwal, director of Rice University's Centre for Multimedia Communication lead the project, acquiring federal funding for initial development.
"Collectively, it was a big waste of time and effort, and there were a lot of people who simply couldn't afford to play," Sabharwal said. "Some of our previous research hinted at the possibilities of an open-access platform, so we had a clear goal when we made our proposal to the National Science Foundation."
Sabharwal said Motorola is using the system to test an entirely new low-cost architecture for wireless Internet in rural India. It's the sort of low-profit-margin project that probably wouldn't have gotten beyond the drawing board if not for WARP, he said. Another early adopter, NASA, is using WARP to look for ways to save weight, cost and complexity in the wiring systems for future spacecraft.
At Rice, CMC staffer Patrick Murphy, the former CMC doctoral student who developed WARP architecture, is collaborating with graduate students to use WARP in proof-of-concept technologies for "cognitive wireless." The cognitive wireless concept stems from the fact that up to half of any given nation's finite wireless spectrum is unused at any given time. Sabharwal said researchers have talked for years about designing smart, "cognitive" networks that can shift frequencies on the fly, opening up vast, unused amounts of spectrum for consumer use.
"WARP provides an entry point for people to test new ideas about cognitive wireless, and our students are answering the fundamental questions: how much spectrum can really be reused without hurting current sporadically used services and more importantly, build practical proof-of-concept prototypes?" Sabharwal said.
Sabharwal said CMC is just beginning to hear back from colleagues about how they are using WARP.
He said several large wireless companies are using WARP to test schemes for wireless phone networks that can transfer data up to 100 times faster than current 3G networks. He said Toyota is using WARP to test car-to-car communications -- systems that automotive engineers hope to use in the future for collision avoidance, traffic management and more. In another case, Sabharwal said he was surprised to learn the some users were partially disassembling the boards to add new functions. It was still cheaper than starting from scratch, so it made sense, but it wasn't something CMC had expected.
"When you put a new technology into people's hands, they'll inevitably find innovative ways to use it," Sabharwal said. "That's one of the best things about WARP. It is going to lead to innovations that we could never have anticipated."
WARP stands for Wireless open-Access Research Platform
At time of writing, the following organisations had signed up to the WARP project, and actively using it to develop new wireless technologies: