Grant application submitted for potential AraNet project in Story County

Marlys Barker, Editor

A grant, valued at up to $24 million and being sought through the National Science Foundation Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research Program, could, if awarded, bring advances in smart agriculture and better technologies to schools and students in Story County.

At a recent Story County Board of Supervisors meeting, the board voted to support the AraNet: Wireless Living Lab for Smart and Connected Rural Communities initiative, which involves several departments at Iowa State University from the College of Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Plant Science Institute.

Hongwei Zhang, who is leading the proposal development, said Supervisors’ Chairman Rick Sanders has been a great help to him in moving forward with the process.

The grant application, for the funds that AraNet is seeking, was due and submitted Dec. 11. A week earlier, the BOS approved a letter to be submitted with that application, demonstrating the county’s support of the proposal and the county’s willingness to work with AraNet on many components of the project that will require county infrastructure and facilities, along with some assistance from county employees.

“The school districts, communities and county can help co-host the wireless infrastructure and use the infrastructure for research, education, innovation and citizen services,” Zhang said. He added that the AraNet infrastructure for research, education and innovation would greatly help to drive local and regional initiatives that need that technical support.

“We are excited about the proposal’s focus on smart agriculture and the needs of a connected rural America, including small communities and farmsteads in Story County,” Sanders wrote in the county’s letter of support. “It builds on Story County’s commitment as a Connect Iowa community to accelerate broadband availability throughout Story County.”

When asked by Supervisor Lauris Olson if AraNet would pose any competitive threat to existing Internet providers, Zhang said, the initiative would actually open opportunities for working together with existing providers. He said a few of those providers have engaged with them and attended workshops on the initiative.

“It’s about driving technology,” he said of the AraNet project, noting there can be “synergy” between the project and current Internet providers.

Examples of what might be possible through AraNet, Zhang said, would be in smart agriculture, “AraNet can connect sensors and ag machines on farms to data analytics engines in the cloud to enable digital and precision farming.” An example of what can happen in rural education, “AraNet can develop technologies that can connect families not connected now (through wireless), thus enabling education experience using online resources, and it also enables bringing on-farm information to classrooms, thus enabling innovative ag education.” He added that with the new technologies, a student in one of our rural schools would be able to use “an AR/VR (augmented reality/virtual reality)-based approach to education.”

Zhang told the supervisors that the group working on this project should hear back in January about whether or not they will move to the next phase of the grant process. The next phase, he said, would include a site visit. Eventually, grant awards would be announced in the fall of 2019.

“It is a very competitive program,” Zhang said about the chances of getting the grant. “It will be great if we win… Even if we do not, the fact that ISU and many local school districts, county and city, as well as industry partners have worked together to pull this proposal together will be of value by itself. The ideas we have come up with, and the partnerships we have forged, can help drive similar initiatives in the near future.”

If funded, the AraNet project will be a five-year project, starting around late 2019 or early 2020.