Rice University
Rice Magazine| The Magazine of Rice University | No. 3 | 2009

Wireless at WARP Speed

Nothing kills innovation like having to reinvent the wheel, and that’s especially true for electronics researchers who had to build every test system completely from scratch to assess new high-speed wireless technologies.

“It was incredibly frustrating,” said Ashutosh Sabharwal, director of Rice University’s Center for Multimedia Communication (CMC). So, in 2006, CMC set out to change that by creating a turnkey, open-source platform that would let wireless researchers expand their tech menus. Now, the platform — dubbed WARP — is whetting the appetites of heavyweights like Nokia, MIT, Toyota, NASA and Ericsson, and it’s already being used to test everything from low-cost wireless Internet in rural India to futuristic “unwired” spacecraft.

WARP stands for “wireless open-access research platform,” and physically, WARP is a collection of circuit boards containing a powerful processor and all the transmitters and other gadgets needed for high-end wireless communications. What makes WARP boards so effective is their flexibility. When researchers need to test several kinds of radio transmitters, wireless routers and network access points, all they need to do is write programs that cause the WARP boards to act as those devices.

“When you put a new technology into people’s hands, they’ll inevitably find innovative ways to use it.”
                                                          —Ashutosh Sabharwal

The concept is starting to pay off. At Rice, CMC Project Manager Patrick Murphy — the former CMC doctoral student who developed the original 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 the 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 the spectrum for consumer use.

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. Another early adopter, NASA, is using WARP to look for ways to save weight, cost and complexity in the wiring systems for future spacecraft. 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. 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.

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Some users are even partially disassembling the boards to add new functions.

“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 never could have anticipated.”