An innovative mobile lab
We created the concept for our mobile lab by studying emergency communications vehicles that other organization had assembled. We observed that many, if not most, were designed to house many traditional fixed-band radios. Using the software-defined mobile network approach that we applied to our on-campus network, we built the mobile lab using software-defined radios and software-defined networking. All of the core computing, including the software-defined radios themselves, run within a unified virtualization environment in the van. This same environment supports both virtualized network functions as well as service machines -- a local computing cloud -- that is integrated with the wireless network. This integration and flexibility make it straightforward to configure the van for different applications. Drone-based data collection and real-time visualization use the same infrastructure as our Survivable Social Network (an emergency communications service).
Building the van
Our van began its life as an honest-to-goodness ambulance for the City of Los Angeles. We selected an ambulance as our vehicle of choice because it provides multiple power sources (alternator, shore power, battery), some natural places for equipment (more on that below), storage space for equipment, and decent creature comforts.
Re-fitting the ambulance involved putting in a shock-mounted equipment rack where one of the paramedics used to sit (see the photo on the right), putting in a 42-foot pneumatic antenna mast where the oxygen bottle used to go, creating a full roof walk with ladder, making it easy to attach various fixtures to the top of the mast, and filling the rack with networking and computing equipment.
The van is currently outfitted to provide three access networks supported by three backhaul networks, undergirded by four power sources.
- Our software-defined cellular networking equipment for cellular coverage
- A mast-mounted WiFi access point for 2.4 / 5 GHz WiFi coverage
- A Motorola XPR8300 repeater, providing DMR (digital mobile radio) coverage. This repeater is also connected to the internet through our soft switch. With a live internet connection, our DMR handheld radios can access the worldwide DMR network
- A cellular router that provides internet connectivity via WiFi (if available) or the AT&T and Verizon networks
- An Inmarsat ground station that can provide internet connectivity when AT&T and Verizon can't
- A high-capacity alternator
- Three marine batteries
- A shore power inlet and charger
- A backup gasoline generator
- Three Dell servers, virtualized with Xen
The van is in regular use for field experiments at Camp Roberts, CA (the Joint Interagency Field Experiments -- JIFX). providing communications, computation, and flight operations support for our drone fleet. The van has also made guest appearances at emergency preparedness events and is in regular use on and around campus.
We are continuing to grow and expand the van's capabilities, but the common concept of "software-defined mobile laboratory" remains.