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The Department of the Navy (DON) presented its most esteemed engineering award to a team led by Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic on June 16 for its leadership in developing the 5G-powered smart warehouse on Marine Corps Logistics Base in Albany, Georgia (MCLB Albany).
The smart warehouse project was commissioned under the “Prototyping and Experimentation” initiative of the 5G Program within the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense (OUSD) for Research and Engineering (R&E).
The DON 5G Integrated Product Team (IPT) took home the 2022 Dr. Delores M. Etter Top Scientists and Engineers of the Year award, part of a highly competitive program sponsored by the Assistant Secretary of the Navy (ASN) for Research, Development and Acquisition (RD&A).
The awards, which were presented at Naval Surface Warfare Center Carderock Division in West Bethesda, recognize the technical excellence, innovation and operational relevance of projects that align with ASN RD&A priorities.
All six members of the DON 5G IPT accepted the award in person — four engineers from NIWC Atlantic and two from NIWC Pacific.
During the ceremony, the Navy’s highest-ranking acquisition official said the awardees serve as shining examples to others.
“You represent the very best of the best,” said the Honorable Tommy Ross, performing the duties of ASN RD&A. “(We) remain the envy of our allies, partners and competitors because we consistently build and operate forces with the most advanced technologies possible. Our scientists and engineers are at the forefront of that work.”
The DON Chief Information Officer sponsors the 5G IPT while most of the team’s internal work is aligned to the wireless enterprise systems and services (WES2) IPT within NIWC Atlantic’s Expeditionary Warfare Department.
John Larson, who leads the WES2 IPT and serves as both the MCLB Albany smart warehouse program manager and the DON 5G IPT project lead, called the engineering award the highlight of his civil service career.
“There are brilliant scientists and engineers throughout the DON,” he said. “To be considered among them and to be included amongst the members of this team is a true honor.”
Midway through a three-year, $76 million project, the DON 5G IPT has enabled key infrastructure for 5G operations at a 300,000 sq. ft. warehouse on MCLB Albany that belongs to Marine Force Storage Command (MFSC).
Once completed, MFSC’s new smart warehouse radiating with 5G will enable data to travel instantaneously across a distributed network of everything from handheld scanners, radios and computing devices to robotics, scrubbers and automated conveyance systems.
“One of the exponential gains of this system will turn a process like fully inventorying a warehouse, which can take up to six months of manual labor, into a continuous and autonomous process that instantly tracks storage locations, security data, vehicles, personnel, environmental conditions and delivery statuses,” Larson said. “How do you even quantify that from an efficiency standpoint by today’s standards?”
In addition to Larson, NIWC Atlantic members on the winning team included DON 5G IPT Director Joseph Snively, Scott Brinson and Gregory Ross. The NIWC Pacific members were Andrew Leidy and Ronald Wolfe.
At a national security level, 5G is critical because it brings the Department of Defense closer to ubiquitous communications — warfighter access to a secure network from any place at any time.
A primary goal of the OUSD R&E’s 5G Program is investing in U.S. industry to enable innovations in 5G.
Brinson, technical lead for the WES2 IPT and principal investigator for the smart warehouse at MCLB Albany, said there is little debate that 5G technologies will play a key role in the evolution of global telecommunication networks.
“You don’t need to look any further than the evening news for ample evidence that an agile and resilient capability like 5G is essential to support the warfighter,” he said. “And technologies that we are introducing with the smart warehouse are allowing us to make that a reality for the Marine Corps.”
The three key pillars of 5G are extremely high speeds, ultra-low latency and the enablement of the Internet of Things (IoT) — meaning any device or object that exchanges data via the internet or other communication.
In a smart warehouse, IoT requires extremely high bandwidths and low latency to operate both at optimal levels and in a safe manner, since autonomous robotics systems are working not only machine-to-machine but also around humans.
In addition, augmented and virtual reality capabilities that, for example, let technicians troubleshoot equipment on the other side of the world, require fewer than 20 milliseconds of latency to avoid user vertigo.
“We are in the single-digit range of milliseconds,” Larson said.
Thus far, the DON 5G IPT has found success by working across many disciplines and leveraging model-based systems engineering; zero-trust architectures; partnerships with industry, academia and nontraditional companies; and forging collaborations with entities like the National Spectrum Consortium and National Telecommunications and Information Agency.
Brinson, who also serves as a tech lead on the DON 5G IPT, said successfully developing 5G capabilities for the warfighter requires a “whole-of-government approach.”
When completed, MFSC’s futuristic facility will serve as a business use case to inform Marine Corps decision-makers on which other warehouse operations may benefit from the capability.
Peter C. Reddy, NIWC Atlantic executive director, said there’s no question the team’s work in Albany can benefit both the warfighter and the greater DON enterprise by increasing leaders’ organic knowledge of 5G technologies.
“This award recognizes how powerful the collaborative efforts and engineering expertise of one small team can be,” Reddy said. “Increasing the speed, security and usefulness of data through 5G will make our warfighters faster and more nimble, which is why I could not be prouder of this team’s accomplishments thus far.”
About NIWC Atlantic
As a part of NAVWAR, NIWC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, cyber and information technology capabilities.
About NIWC Pacific
As a part of NAVWAR, NIWC Pacific’s mission is to conduct research, development, engineering and support of integrated command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, cyber and space systems across all warfighting domains, and to rapidly prototype, conduct test and evaluation, and provide acquisition, installation, and in-service engineering support.
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