US Military funds research that tests 5G technology as a surveillance radar

Since its arrival in 2019, 5G has represented the new standard in technology for broadband cellular networks. With telecommunications companies worldwide implementing it throughout a coronavirus pandemic that has kept the world on lockdown, the technology that has helped keep us connected throughout is predicted to have nearly 1.7 billion subscribers within the next four years.

Now, two researchers from Binghamton University and State University of New York are exploring other uses for 5G, and have received two grants to study whether it can be used in ways similar to how radar functions, by creating images based on how the carrier waves bounce off objects or people.


Background: The future of mobile network

5G is the fifth-generation technology for cellular networks and has been connecting countless wireless devices since 2019 with better connections, greater bandwidth, and higher speeds than the previous generations. To some, 5G is only about improving cellular capabilities, but to others, this technology will transform the way all machines interact and function.

The 5G tech makes use of higher frequencies and can transmit data way faster than the previous version, as high as 4GB per second. The high frequency of the high-speed mmWave 5G requires cell towers to be installed at a much higher density.

A higher density of cell towers is possibly what makes 5G technology appealing to the military, namely when it comes to surveillance features.


Analysis: 5G as a surveillance mechanism

Yu Chen and Xiaohua Li received a $297,082 grant from the US Air Force Office of Scientific Research’s Dynamic Data and Information Processing (DDIP) that will fund the project, and an additional $295,282 grant from the Department of Defense’s Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP) for the purchase of necessary equipment.

The research they are developing will combine 5G-based sensing tech with optical cameras for the Environmental Resilience Surveillance Edge Service (ERSES-5G) networks.

“We can leverage the advanced features of 5G communication,” Chen said. “It has a shorter delay and is more reliable because of the density of its base stations and antennas. At the same time, we will explore the security, safety, and robustness of the system. We are going to integrate new technology like machine learning and blockchain into the system”.

These additions come from the need the military has to protect their information from intruding elements. “The Air Force has to make sure the system deployed in a battlefield must be secure. Enemies always try to compromise your system, steal your information and insert false information to mislead you”.

Using a 5G network as what they refer to as a “mmWave camera” will allow them to work similarly to an infrared camera, seeing through fog while still facilitating high-speed communication. “We can make the imaging work in all weather conditions, in the daytime or at night. It can help an optical camera system”, Li said.

The military may benefit from this technology by allowing ground troops to see enemy combatants around corners or in dark spaces where they would otherwise be hidden.


Outlook: Pushing the boundaries of 5G tech

This current project is built on the knowledge that both researchers have accumulated over the years, with previous studies. Both of them have been exploring intelligent surveillance, wireless information security, and cognitive radio networks for the past decade.

“Our system is the first of its kind, which I believe can increase the visibility of Binghamton University,” Chen said. “We are pushing the frontier of smart applications for the Air Force and the Department of Defense to protect the interests of our nation”. He added that “Everybody tries to propose something new, but our unique combination of experts should result in success”.

The research is in its early stages and a long way away from being fully implemented, but if it proves to be successful, the system could eventually be used by civilians for home healthcare or commercial security systems.

Raquel is a forensic geneticist turned freelance writer. She has a knack for technology and a passion for science. You can follow her at and on Twitter @theRaquelSantos