New communications technology for smarter ‘smart warehouses’

VCU Engineering researchers develop 5G communications system to enable smart warehouse technology

Ruixin Niu, Ph.D.
Ruixin Niu, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Wireless communications technologies to help locate and inventory items in warehouses have been a game-changer for supply chain logistics in recent years. The so-called “smart warehouses” that incorporate these technologies are becoming essential as these facilities grow in size. A typical Amazon warehouse, for example, is about 450 times the size of the average American home. 

Ruixin Niu, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, is working to optimize communications systems for smart warehouses. He is the principal investigator on a project to design a distributed wireless system to enhance communications capabilities for smart warehouses’ industrial internet of things devices.

VCU’s team, including Niu and Yanxiao Zhao, Ph.D., also an associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, are developing this technology with a $500,000 subaward from the Virginia Tech Applied Research Corporation (VT-ARC) for a 5G smart warehouse project funded by the U.S. Department of Defense.

Their system design is based on a multi-antenna technology, typically used in cellular communications, called a multiple-input multiple-output — or MIMO — system. In MIMO communications systems, both the transmitters and receivers are equipped with multiple antennas to increase the performance of the entire system.

“Each antenna in the array will send a signal,” Niu said. “Since multiple antennae will receive the signals, the system is going to combine them, and this will enhance reliability, signal strength and the system capacity to essentially improve the communication quality.”

Niu said centralized MIMO systems, in which the transmit/receive antennas are together at a single base station or communications node, have received a lot of attention lately. But distributed MIMO systems, in which antennas “live” on spatially distributed communications nodes and form a large, virtual antenna array, are less commonplace.

Distributed systems are attractive in smart warehouse design because they are easy and generally less expensive to scale if a facility is enlarged. They are also more reliable because they are made up of multiple nodes and don’t experience disruptions if a single node fails.

In addition, distributed systems “have the capability to increase system capacity and reduce access distance and be combined with more flexible radio resource management techniques to outperform centralized MIMO communication systems,” Niu said. “More importantly, for smart warehouse applications, with flexible architecture, the distributed MIMO system can cover the dead spots in the indoor environments.”

Niu’s team will develop this communication technology over the next three years. They are currently designing the system, developing computer models and conducting computer simulations.

In the next phase, collaborating with VT-ARC, Virginia Tech and their industry partners, the team will help create a test bed for the distributed MIMO communication system.

The final phase will be installation and evaluation of their system, along with technologies from other subcontractors, at VT-ARC’s facility. It will later be deployed and tested at a U.S. Marine Corps warehouse.