Northeastern researcher to co-lead groundbreaking NSF initiative to advance wireless communications

Northeastern researchers, led by Tommaso Melodia, associate professor, will determine the best practices that researchers will follow in developing projects for a new NSF program on advanced wireless communications. Photo by Adam Glanzman/Northeastern

On Wednesday, the National Science Foundation named Northeastern professor Tommaso Melodia director of research of the Project Office for a groundbreaking initiative called Platforms for Advanced Wireless Research, or PAWR. The NSF will fund the PAWR Project Office, or PPO, with a five-year, $6.1 million award.

PAWR will foster fundamental research and development of multiple community-scale platforms supporting next-generation wireless communications networks across the U.S. Together with US Ignite, Inc., a nonprofit organization that creates next-generation gigabit applications, Melodia and his Northeastern team will oversee the vetting, selection, management, and construction of projects proposed by research teams drawn from the U.S. academic and industrial wireless research community.

Over the next seven years, the PPO will disburse nearly $100 million in investments from the NSF and more than 25 companies and industry associations to the winning teams.

“PAWR will provide the research community with unprecedented capabilities to experiment at scale with wireless platforms, potentially revolutionizing the nation’s wireless infrastructure,” says Melodia, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, whose Northeastern team will develop the best practices that the researchers will follow. “Northeastern scientists, leaders in the field of wireless networked systems and communications, are eager to help promote the next-generation technologies that will bring PAWR to fruition.”


“Smart cities of the future”

The 4G LTE and Wi-Fi networks used today may not be sufficient to support the continued exponential growth in the use of wireless internet-connected devices in the U.S., including computers, phones, tablets, and wearables. Hence the need to both enhance broadband capability and continue developing new applications and services such as the Internet of Things, or IoT, which represents the ability to interconnect the cyber and physical worlds with devices embedded in everyday objects such as thermostats or multiple environmental sensors.

Melodia, who heads the Wireless Networks and Embedded Systems Laboratory at Northeastern, specializes in the modeling, optimization, and experimental evaluation of wireless networked systems, including IoT, cognitive radio networks, and underwater networks.

The Northeastern team, which includes Kaushik Chowdhury and Stefano Basagni, both associate professors in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, in leading roles, will be responsible for building the reference architecture for the platforms—that is, the set of best practices that researchers will follow in developing their projects. “We want to be sure the platforms cover a broad range of wireless technologies, that each one is unique, that they are designed to enable groundbreaking research, and that they can operate in conjunction with one another,” says Melodia.

One technology that the NSF expects to be advanced under PAWR is millimeter wave, which could go a long way toward alleviating the burden on overtaxed conventional networks. “It uses frequencies much higher than those used in current wireless networks—28 gigahertz and above compared to frequencies between 300 megahertz and 3 gigahertz used in most current cellular networks,” says Melodia. “So it may enable the transmission of large amounts of data much faster than any technology we have now.”

“We are very excited that our experts in wireless communications and networking, headed by professor Tommaso Melodia, have been chosen to lead the PAWR PPO together with US Ignite, Inc.,” says Nadine Aubry, dean of the College of Engineering and University Distinguished Professor at Northeastern. “By bringing together leaders in the field from academia, industry, government, and communities, PAWR will significantly advance society by creating the platforms necessary to build the next-generation wireless infrastructure, which will spur the IoT revolution and enable the smart cities of the future.”


Ensuring U.S. competitiveness

Community-wide uses of the platforms could run the gamut. One possibility, according to the NSF, would provide a unique educational experience to science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, students in a rural community. Using a new application and an ultra-high speed connection, the students could, in real time, remotely operate an ultra-high definition microscope housed in a university lab thousands of miles away. On the slides beneath the lens, they would view microorganisms while simultaneously holding a high-definition video conference with the faculty researchers.

Such developments would not only benefit the direct users. They would also help ensure the country’s economic competitiveness in the telecommunications sector for years to come.

“NSF is pleased to have the combined expertise from US Ignite, Inc., and Northeastern University leading the Project Office for our PAWR program,” says Jim Kurose, assistant director of NSF for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. “The planned research platforms will provide an unprecedented opportunity to enable research in faster, smarter, more responsive, and more robust wireless communication, and to move experimental research beyond the lab—with profound implications for science and society.”

The award will also be announced this week during the panel discussion “Wireless Network Innovation: Smart City Foundation,” at South by Southwest, in Austin, Texas.