4 Startups Tapped to Pilot Capabilities at Defense’s 5G Living Lab

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At some U.S. military bases, next generation connectivity is right around the corner.

Four startups this week won $50K a piece and an opportunity to pilot and test out their technologies at the Marine Corps Air Station, or MCAS, Miramar’s 5G Living Lab in San Diego.

The chosen companies—COMSovereign, GenXComm, Omnispace, and vRotors—competed against nearly 50 total for the top spots through the National Security Innovation Network or NSIN’s Navy/USMC 5G Pitch Competition. That network is an organization within the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit.

“All of the winners are developing technology that either will help the Marines establish and deploy secure 5G networks domestically and abroad, or uses the benefits of 5G networks to deliver new strategic capabilities to the war fighter,” NSIN’s Pacific South Regional Director Jesse Gipe explained.

In an email to Nextgov Thursday, Gipe and others involved shared details into what the selected players have to offer and what will come next.

Fifth-generation wireless technology is expected to introduce next-level connectivity and disrupt the world’s mobile landscape. In July, the Marine Corps and Verizon teamed up to launch the living lab as a testbed for the strategic exploration of 5G-enabled defense applications and use cases. The move marked the first time Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband service was deployed at a military base, though the company is also offering up capabilities for other federally-led experimental efforts to advance the burgeoning technology. 

Andrés Irlando, Verizon’s senior vice president and president of public sector and Verizon Connect, said leaders across the Pentagon fully grasp the mission-critical role the company’s 5G service “will play in unlocking innovation and technology for the military.”

The Pentagon is also steering separate test sites at five other military bases to push forward the United States’ defense-driven 5G pursuits. And Joey Clark, program manager of NSIN’s Starts program, through which the network executed the contest, noted the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering’s 5G program picked 12 Defense Department installations across the services to deploy and evaluate the next-generation networks.

“The Navy and Marine Corps have made firm in word and investment that finding and supporting 5G-enabled technologies are high priorities,” Clark said.

In all, NSIN, NavalX SoCal Tech Bridge and the Naval Information Warfare Center Pacific were behind the prize competition. During a virtual event held by those entities Tuesday, 10 finalists presented their solutions to a panel of judges, and other keynotes and panels unfolded regarding the Pentagon’s 5G aims and strategy. 

Winners were unveiled Wednesday.

Of the startups, GenXComm produces advanced technologies for delivering spectrally efficient, ultra-low latency 5G networks and resilient coverage. The vRotors platform powers what Nextgov was told is a “suite of 4G/5G connected remotely piloted live drones and terrestrial visual sensors with telemetry driven mixed reality for facility and off-base situational awareness.” COMSovereign is an American-based technology provider for 5G end-to-end solutions, and Omnispace's hybrid pole-to-pole communications system essentially offers one interoperable network for 5G connectivity to be tapped by users and internet of things devices anywhere on the globe.

Now, the four winners are gearing up to demonstrate their technology at MSAC Miramar’s lab in February, according to USMC’s NavalX SoCal Tech Bridge Director Lt. Col. Brandon Newell.  

“Our Navy [research and development] colleagues will analyze each company’s demonstration in order to increase our understanding of the technology and the concepts of employment across the defense sector,” Newell said.

Ahead of the evaluations, the startups will work directly with Verizon and US Ignite, which Newell confirmed is the project manager running the 5G living lab pilots. That planning process between the top four and two entities will kick off next week. To Newell, the effort underscores the power of the collaborative market that the Defense Department and its subcomponents have built around 5G.  

“We have stripped away typical government bureaucracy and empowered the expertise of Verizon and US Ignite to both move forward effectively and expediently,” Newell said. “We are rapidly increasing our technical knowledge and application acumen to unlocking the future—all through collaboration!”  

NSIN’s Clark added that the network is “exploring additional opportunities to showcase more 5G technologies and engage DoD customers interested in developing additional pitch events.” And as for this go-around, he said “the high number of entries was not a surprise, because 5G is already a rapidly growing commercial ecosystem and the problem statements reflected areas of interest to the DoD that are of interest in the private sector as well.”