Campus 'ham' association promotes exciting new uses for radio-Silicon Valley Campus - Carnegie Mellon University

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Campus 'ham' association promotes exciting new uses for radio

New CMU-SV licensees at Pacificon in October.
New CMU-SV licensees at Pacificon in October.

Radio technology is more than 100 years old, but it continues to play a huge role in developing 21st century innovations. Carnegie Mellon University's Silicon Valley campus is a hotbed of radio activity with its research into mobile technology, connected embedded systems and smart communities — all of which rely on radio frequencies to transmit signals through space.

CMU-SV's amateur radio association, the Wireless Innovators, was created to support students, faculty and affiliates in their experiments with radio as they develop novel uses combining wireless technology with computers and sensors. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates radio operations in the U.S., approved the club in June 2013 with the call sign W6CMU — W6 representing California and the CMU for the university.

This fall, a group of experienced "hams" — the popular shorthand for amateur radio operators — shared their knowledge and enthusiasm for radio in a five-week class at the Silicon Valley campus. Campus Director Bob Iannucci (W6EI), Principal Research Scientist Martin Griss (KJ6MIN) and David Witkowski (W6DTW), president of the Northern California Wireless Communications Alliance, led the courses with assistance from ECE graduate student Derek Kozel (AG6PO). Approximately 20 students, faculty and alumni joined the sessions to prepare for the licensing exam.

Once licensed by the FCC, amateur radio operators can transmit voice, video and data on specific channels, many of which can cross hundreds of miles with the use of antennas, repeaters and specialized receivers. Combining a license with engineering experience allows CMU's grad students and faculty to explore new ways of working with radio tools that connect devices like cell phones and computers. They can also work with software-defined radio signals to provide even greater coverage.

"Amateur radio is one of my lifelong passions, and I'm very happy to establish this group on our campus," said Iannucci. "I look forward to seeing what the students and faculty can accomplish with support from CMU and the Wireless Innovators."

Local associations function as both test labs and social organizations, and are frequently active in emergency response planning, when regular communication channels and commercial networks may be compromised or unavailable. Iannucci, Griss and Witkowski are members of local community emergency response teams (CERT), and the CMU Disaster Management Initiative (DMI) has led several workshops and projects involving the use of radio in disaster preparation. Two of the campus's major radio projects, the Survivable Social Network and CROSSMobile cell network, were initially developed with the DMI.

"Radio is incredibly important to engineers in many fields, especially those of us who rely on sharing data efficiently to create connected environments or innovate in the Internet of Things," explained Griss, director of the DMI and a member of Mountain View CERT. "These are incredibly relevant skills for our students to learn and incorporate into their work, and for those of us active in amateur radio support of disaster response."

Radio and CMU go back a long way; the Carnegie Tech Radio Club, W3VC, was founded in 1914 and is the third-oldest student organization on campus. They provide safety communication services for several campus events, including the annual Buggy race day during Spring Carnival. Kozel was an office of the club as an undergraduate. 

Silicon Valley's campus sessions were held in advance of Pacificon, the ARRL (American Radio Relay League) Pacific Division Amateur Radio Convention in October, where participants could take the test to earn a license and a call sign. The WCA, which sponsors the event, offered free admission to graduate students, and Witkowski said he was excited to see so many from CMU in attendance.

Ten Wireless Innovators passed the exam at Pacificon.

Technician licenses  

  • Nathan Martin (MS SM ‘13)
  • Steven Rosenberg (faculty) 
  • Srikanth Kallakuri (Ph.D.)
  • Harry Chan-Maestas (Ph.D.)

Technician and General

  • Guanting Liu (MS ECE)
  • Ervin Teng (Ph.D.)
  • Patrick Tague (faculty)
  • Ahmed Bougacha (Ph.D.)
  • Maxim Kovalev (Ph.D.)
  • Rishik Dahr (MS SE)

Several other Silicon Valley club members passed their licensing tests at a later date, as well. To congratulate the new hams, CMU's Wireless Innovators held their official inaugural meeting in October, and in November elected officers from the student body. The first activities on the calendar: planning a tape-measure-Yagi construction project and the first "fox hunt."

"The Wireless Innovators club is a wonderful addition to the Silicon Valley campus, a great blend of opportunities for research, academics, community engagement and student life," said Griss.