A high-tech proving ground opened its doors in Stafford Tuesday morning, giving inventors and researchers a place to develop and test sophisticated new tools to improve safety, mobility and communications in smart communities across Virginia and beyond.
“This is the first in the state and the concept of smart communities is really fundamental to where we’re going to be in the next decade,” said Rep. Rob Wittman, whose 1st District includes much of the Fredericksburg area. “Somebody that has an innovative or a creative idea can use this testbed to come here and try out that idea, try to find other partners with it, get it scaled up to where it can actually be a marketable opportunity for them.”.
Virginia Secretary of Commerce and Trade Brian Ball labeled the Virginia Smart Community Testbed Center an asset to the community and the entire nation.
“We preach, in our office, collaboration on a daily basis,” said Ball. “What we want from this testbed, what our goals will be, that every community can participate, come to this to exchange ideas, explore new technologies and work together to face, address and resolve the common challenges we all face.”
The facility, located in a former convenience store near the Stafford Courthouse, will be a venue for entrepreneurs developing technology for the fields of public safety, data security, training, economic development and tourism, as well as 5G technology and broadband expansion.
Much of the technology deploys sensors and other electronic devices to monitor and capture data, then uses the information to better manage community resources and services. Examples include installing sensors to monitor for and respond to floods and fires, or erecting streetlights that also support wireless or broadband service.
“It’s a resource for communities across the state,” said David Ihrie, chief technology officer of the Center for Innovative Technology, the county’s primary partner in the testbed endeavor. “This is a place where lots of different communities can come and look at different technologies, or, if they have something that’s specific to their locality, we could perhaps try it out in the testbed.”
The CIT, an extension of the state government, works with early start-up companies, manages grants and focuses on economic development. Stafford Economic Development Director John Holden said since the county first approached CIT more than two years ago, there has been over $1 million invested in research and development of smart community pilot projects.
Ihrie said some money for the testbed comes from the state, but a lot of technologies are funded by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate.
“For the flood sensor, the wildfire sensor, they provided the funding to develop those, we put a little state funding against that, to actually bring those into this environment,” Ihrie said.
Ihrie said some of the other work done ahead of the testbed opening included the validation of a zero-trust cybersecurity network, a look at urban smart poles that not only light streets, but support and conceal wireless telecommunications equipment, and smart technology applications for Fredericksburg’s new Riverfront Park.
“As we go through time, we’ll be adding new ones and validating some of the ones we started already,” said Mike Cannon, Stafford’s director of information technology. “The range of things involve drones to sensors to lake water testing for COVID, flood sensors, smoke sensors. We’re looking at places like Brooke Road to deploy flood sensors.”
Even though the facility opened Tuesday, county officials say a number of companies have already lined up to bring their innovations to the table.
“We already have several organizations that are excited to be part of this project and out of that will come several benefits that will not only benefit this community, but other communities across this nation, for sure,” said Andrew Spence, Stafford’s communications director.
Before the 10 a.m. ceremony, which was attended by County Administrator Fred Presley, Quantico Marine Corps Base Commander Col. William Bentley and several county supervisors, exhibitors inside the testbed were collaborating and arranging future meetings to help advance technology-based products.
“Right when we were setting up, our neighbor right here walked up to us and they’re doing work that complements what we do,” said Mohammad Obeid, assistant professor of virtual and augmented reality at Shenandoah University in Winchester. “We got to talking, exchanged some cards and there might be come collaboration kicking off soon.”
Both Ihrie and county officials say the testbed is strategically positioned between Washington and Richmond to be convenient to a large number of businesses.
“This is the kind of area that we expect to be rapidly growing and it’s kind of strategically located that way,” Ihrie said. “We’re getting a lot of interest now from folks like the Marine Corps ... . The proximity to other entities in the area is really great.”
Kevin Taylor, smart city business development manager of Chelmsford, Mass.-based Axis Communications, a testbed participant, said of the 19,500 cities and towns across the United States, the vast majority are small to midsize, making Stafford an ideal perfect place for a technology testbed.
“There’s only approximately 40 cities that have a population of over 500,000, so when we look at Stafford, Va., this is a prime example of what most of the country is in terms of size of community and scale,” said Taylor. “So having a testbed here really applies to so much more of the market and of our society.”
County officials said the facility will offer entrepreneurs the needed workspace they can’t find at home to scientifically develop and test their products in a true laboratory environment.
“Sometimes a garage just doesn’t work for them,” said Spence. “They need a professional, sophisticated place for them to develop their products. This is similar in that mindset that this is a testbed, a place to actually develop this technology. And if they don’t have that option, now they do, and that’s a real opportunity for them.”
Researchers at the testbed will be able to test and operate their equipment with 5G broadband that was installed at the Courthouse Road interchange about three months ago. County officials said Verizon chose the new location due to its close proximity to the testbed.
“Everyone’s clamoring for 5G, but there aren’t a lot of places that have it,” said Cannon. “We’re very fortunate to be one of the first places in the region to get it.”
Wittman called the new Stafford testbed an “enabler” for advanced broadband testing.
“This is how you take that little light that goes on in somebody’s head and you put a little bit of electricity behind it and guess what? Now all of a sudden you have something that expands into the next Apple computer,” Wittman said.
“I think what will happen [in Stafford County] won’t just have an impact on the Stafford community, it’ll have an impact on the 1st District and the whole Commonwealth of Virginia and subsequently, I think, our nation.”
James Scott Baron: