A team led by University of Utah computer science researchers is one of 16 multidisciplinary groups selected nationwide for the first phase of a new convergence research track to develop advanced 5G communications technologies for the U.S. military, federal government and infrastructure operators.

These 16 teams, selected by the U.S. Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation, are part of Phase 1 of the Convergence Accelerator’s “Securely Operating Through 5G Infrastructure” track. For the next nine months, each team will develop its idea into a proof of concept, identify new team members and partners, and participate in the Convergence Accelerator innovation curriculum, according to the NSF. At the end of Phase 1, the teams will participate in a formal Phase 2 proposal and pitch.

The team, led by University of Utah School of Computing professor Kobus Van der Merwe (pictured), will pitch the development of an intelligent system for 5G communications networks in which it knows what’s going on in the network, when it experiences attacks, and how it can react to them.

Such a system would be deployed within a cellular carrier’s network and will be used in the case of a natural disaster or global conflict where emergency responders and military personnel need immediate use of the network for communications.

“A big question for the Department of Defense is if they go into an area of operations, do they build their own communications infrastructure or can they operate through the network that’s already there?” Van der Merwe said. “If there is a 5G network there, how do they make use of it? And if you do, you have to do it in a way that is safe and secure.”

His team proposes developing a system that can be deployed in an existing 5G network and be adapted if necessary for military or first-responder needs. That involves introducing its own software applications into an Open Radio Access Network (Open RAN), a flexible, modifiable network that can be customized through software instead of new hardware.

The benefits of operating through an existing 5G network in this way is that a military unit or government agency could setup a mobile network quickly as opposed to building out a new communication infrastructure. The intelligent control being proposed by the team will allow using such an existing 5G network in the most secure manner.

Van der Merwe said the proposed capabilities will also benefit the general public. “This is going to make the network you and I use better,” he said. “They will be more stable, reliable and secure.”

The University of Utah team includes researchers from the telecommunications company AT&T; government contractors, L3Harris Technologies and Zylinium Research; the National Institute of Standards and Technology; Columbia University; the University of Notre Dame; and the University of Minnesota.

Launched in 2019, the Convergence Accelerator — a Directorate for Technology, Innovation and Partnerships, or TIP, program — builds upon NSF’s investment in basic research and discovery to accelerate solutions toward societal and economic impact. Convergence Accelerator multidisciplinary teams use research fundamentals and innovative processes to stimulate the sharing of ideas and the development of sustainable solutions.

“The NSF Convergence Accelerator is focused on solving some of the hardest national and societal challenges — designed to provide a positive societal and economic impact,” said Douglas Maughan, head of the NSF Convergence Accelerator. “And while this is our program’s focus, we are thrilled to expand the program’s model and fundamentals to address this national security challenge and to support the DOD’s 5G mission.”