Inside Pacific Northwest National Lab’s 5G Innovation Studio


Federal officials are exploring what the next generation of wireless capabilities has to offer.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s 5G Innovation Studio is advancing an assortment of future-facing research and development in its early months of existence, like bomb disposal robots and rapid vital sign-capturing devices for first responders.

This fall will mark a year since the hub’s buildout. The studio was the first and remains the only major deployment of Verizon-provided next-generation wireless capabilities within a national lab. 

“As you look at 5G and what's coming and what has already emerged with that capability—it's really a technology inflection point,” General Manager in PNNL’s National Security Directorate Scott Godwin recently told Nextgov. “And so the capabilities that come with 5G are allowing many other related things to really flourish.”

Godwin, who also leads corporate partnerships and alliance work within the Washington-based lab, noted that the advent of 5G will allow internet of things capabilities to reach their full potential and that new applications associated with artificial intelligence, machine learning and cloud computing are also on the horizon. He, as well as Verizon’s Senior Vice President for Public Sector Jennifer Chronis, briefed Nextgov on how the 5G-experimentation studio is evolving, and the use cases that are unfolding inside of it.

On the Ground 

At Pacific Northwest, researchers specifically hone in on advanced mobile communications R&D. They perform studies supporting the missions of multiple federal agency sponsors including the National Nuclear Security Administration, National Institutes of Health, and the Energy, Homeland Security and Defense departments, among others.

Godwin and his team had gotten to know Verizon officials over the last several years, working on previous projects to make collaborative advances in cybersecurity.  

“As that effort kind of came to a conclusion, we looked at each other and said ‘Man, we really need to figure out some ways to partner more effectively and work together,’” Godwin explained. “So as we embarked on that, one of the first things we decided we wanted to prioritize in our partnership was an effort around 5G.”

Ultimately, those aims led to the concept around the lab-housed 5G Innovation Lab Studio, which has fully come into fruition more recently. It was designed into an existing facility at Pacific Northwest’s Richland, Washington campus.

“It's about 1,200 square feet in one of our buildings and it has a full 5G core—there’s both 4G and 5G antennas in that space,” Godwin confirmed. 

The area had to have an effective workspace for multiple projects to go in and be tested on that network, as well as a dedicated space to demonstrate new technologies. “As a national lab, we frequently have federal sponsors that are coming to the lab for various purposes,” Goodwin added. At times, it’s to look at existing progress on unfolding efforts or how PNNL might be able to support present needs. Spots like this hub “become a common tour spot where those federal sponsors want to pop in and see what's possible, see what's developing, how this could be used and what's being prototyped,” he said.

Verizon’s Chronis further confirmed that the 5G studio infrastructure includes the telecommunications company’s 5G ultra wideband wireless technology and next-gen radios installed directly in-house. 

“Verizon Public Sector’s work at PNNL is important as it enables research across areas like port and border security, grid infrastructure engagement, and augmented human-machine teaming capabilities for first responders,” Chronis noted. “This type of partnership can be emulated across other agencies, and there are numerous examples where Verizon Public Sector is supporting digital transformation across defense and civilian agencies.”

Such work is rolling out at the Veterans Affairs Department, “where the network is helping to enable telemedicine and enhanced robotic surgery,” she said, as well as at the Marine Corps Air Station at Miramar and Air Force bases across the Southeastern United States—including Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband service at Tyndall AFB that officials “expect to light up by the end of the year.”

Amping Up Options

Since the innovation-driving studio was launched at Pacific Northwest, insiders have been sharing what Godwin said are “creative conversations” around 5G’s potential to enable new capabilities—and bringing existing prototypes to “a whole different level.”

He pointed to prior work the lab engaged in that was funded by DHS, dubbed VitalTag.

Almost four years ago, researchers worked to create a low-cost, disposable bandage-like device that first responders can use to remotely track and receive vital signs from patients while they are in route to a mass casualty incident. Essentially, after an emergency hits, onsite personnel can attach VitalTag to injured individuals. The tag sends data to medical team members so they can grasp people’s conditions before they arrive, and the same data can also be sent to trauma centers ahead of patients for preparation. 

“You can imagine this being used in everything from a DOD setting for warfighters of the future, where we're able to track their vitals in real time. You can imagine it being used in a mass casualty kind of an event, after an accident, to be able to track patients,” Godwin explained. “So that capability had been developed, and then we were able to talk with that same sponsor about this and say ‘Hey with 5G, here's what's coming with not only high bandwidth, but low latency—here's what new kinds of capabilities could be built into that, and here's what new use cases could be dreamed up in that kind of a network setting.’”

That reignited work to up the capabilities via this 5G-enabled environment is now in progress.

Pacific Northwest also partnered with the Washington State Patrol to help boost its bomb-detection robots, which are sent out into realms deemed too dangerous for humans to enter. Godwin said such robots are typically slow, equipped with less sophisticated 2D-grayscale monitors and top-heavy to a point that they’ll hit bumps and tip over, potentially requiring people to put themselves at risk.

As soon as his team started cooperating with the patrol and noticed these challenges, Godwin said officials were inspired to see if they could install a 360-degree camera on top of the bomb robot to make it “a very immersive experience that allowed you to change remote operations”—and then also augment it by incorporating sensor-related and other data to support operations. 

“And so that's exactly what we've done. What it means for the operator now is it's as though I'm sitting directly on top of the bomb robot. I have a virtual reality headset on, and I'm able to look left, right, up, down and it's an immersive experience,” he explained. “That has fundamentally changed their operations and how they're able to do the work that they do while being much more quick and efficient in the process.”

The introduction of 5G allows the huge 360-degree video files to be sent quickly to the VR headset worn by the operator. Godwin and his team have also been conducting similar work for robotic systems that are doing gas and oil tank inspection and maintenance. 

He further noted that while seemingly all of the lab’s sponsors are deeply intrigued by 5G opportunities and how they might fundamentally shift their mission, “the very next question and the very next series of focus is always around ‘how do you help me ensure security of that process?’” The technology will enable billions of potential new connections and attack vectors, and multiple cybersecurity-centered efforts are being chased within the studio. 

Beyond these and other pursuits, Verizon and Pacific Northwest officials are in active discussions about the studio’s direction for the near and longer-term future. There remains a lot of big questions that need to be answered, Godwin said “but at the same time, the potential has got everybody very, very excited.”