Wireless R&D priorities for pandemic response management
Few months ago, the Director of the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that the repercussions of the COVID-19 crisis are going to last for decades! It is not entirely clear what he actually meant, but the general sentiment is that we need to learn how to co-exist with the pandemic … likely for quite long! This is particularly true given the more realistic timeline for producing a viable and scalable vaccine or treatment. Under such circumstances, researchers and technologists in every domain started thinking and even reconsidering their priorities. Wireless is no different.
So as people in the wireless area, my colleagues Slim Alouini, @Tareq Al-Naffouri, @Nasir Saeed and myself started wondering about those wireless technologies which are most relevant to managing the response to prolonged pandemics. For a starter, we released a questionnaire (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/8XL5N39) back in June 2020 to solicit feedback from the wireless engineers and technologists community. The main goal was to understand how they would prioritize R&D plans in the context of pandemic response management. We also conducted few interviews with highly experienced people hailing from academia and industry with the aim to obtain even a deeper insight.
We designed the questionnaire considering three stages in relation to pandemic response management. When there is an outbreak or a new wave of cases, the top priority obviously is to “ fight” off the outbreak. As communities emerge from lock-downs or restricted-mobility modes and economic activity ramps up, greater focus should be granted to “ recovering” efforts. On the longer term, we should be able to “ extrapolate” innovations and benefits resulting from pandemic response efforts to new use cases and less privileged communities. While fighting the pandemic is an obvious immediate priority, being able to reap the benefits of technology at later stages is also very appealing. With such a balance in mind, respondents were asked to assign weights to each of those stages.
“Fight/recover/extrapolate” was the first layer of a three-layer trellis which we used to eventually rank technologies according to their priority (see figure below). The second layer considered use cases and applications that authorities and communities are most likely to revert to during pandemics. We identified 12 applications and then asked respondents to rank the importance of each application with respect to the response management stage (fight, recover, or extrapolate).
And finally, the last layer laid out 14 technologies or research topics which hopefully offered a comprehensive coverage of the wireless area. We then asked respondents to match technologies to applications and then traced responses over the trellis as shown below. Fat edges in the trellis represents a path which has been selected often and/or bears higher importance. The higher the final weight next to a given technology the higher the priority it seems to have in relation to pandemic response management.
We have not amassed a very large number of responses. However, there are some trends or commonalities that are worthwhile pointing out:
- Network function virtualization (NFV) and software defined networking (SDN) made it to the top of the list! Respondents specifically coming from an industry background stressed that NFV/SDN is key to enable 5G networks to deliver on the promise of highly scalable, highly reliable, ultra-low latency services.
- With NFV/SDN in place, ultra-reliable low-latency communications (URLLC) occupied top positions in the list as well. This is likely due to the fact that URLLC is seen as a key enabler for two use cases considered highly relevant during pandemics: factory robotization and warehouse automation.
- Surprisingly, device-to-device (D2D) communications achieved a stunningly high rank in the list, actually the second place. D2D has morphed into multiple catchy names over the past decade. But most recently, it is re-emerging under the brand names of “sidelinking” and “vehicle-to-everything”. If D2D is good enough for autonomous vehicles on the street, it should be also good enough for autonomous agents on the factory and warehouse floors.
- Location-based services (LBS) and positioning technologies were also highlighted, although to a lesser extent. This makes sense since the new norm is one where automation and physical distancing seem to prevail. As such, accurate positioning and tracking will kick in as a valuable tool.
Looking at the results, we believe there is something in common here: wireless networks are expected by people to be ever more flexible or elastic. Big fat pipes (which has driven wireless R&D for decades) is not the magical wand anymore. Rather, it is the ability to host various functions with application-driven design.
What are your thoughts on this? We’d be flattered if you take the chance to go through survey (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/8XL5N39) or drop us a line.