Engineers team to improve wireless network technology

Wireless phones and other devices that use a wireless network have changed communication in our time. Despite the advances in the technology, calls often get dropped or temporarily lose contact, causing data to be lost.

A team of engineers at Washington University in St. Louis will work to solve this problem in industrial applications with a three-year, $500,000 grant from the National Science Foundation by approaching the communication from both ends of the spectrum — the controller and the network.

Humberto Gonzalez, assistant professor of electrical & systems engineering, leads the team, which includes Chenyang Lu, the Fullgraf Professor in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering, both in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, as well as PR Kumar, professor and College of Engineering Chair in Computer Engineering at Texas A&M University, who received a $250,000 grant as part of the collaboration.

Industrial processes, such as those at an oil refinery, begin with a controller, or a computer that sends and receives signals, driven by code, to the plant, such as when to open and close valves or to turn the boiler on and off. In the past, those signals were sent over vast lengths of wire. However, new technology is wireless, requiring a very different code. A wireless network also is prone to communication delays and dropped packets, or digital information, which is disruptive to production in an industrial setting.

Gonzalez, a systems engineer who works in control, and Lu, a wireless network expert who works in wireless networks, plan to develop a new generation of industrial wireless control in which the controller and the wireless network can communicate in real time more efficiently. They plan to do that using a middleware designed by Kumar that can read the different codes from the controller and the network, translate them, and send the messages through in languages each can understand, similar to a foreign language translator. This allows the control engineers and the network engineers to work together to co-design the network from the start, rather than one having to rewrite the code for either the controller or the network.

The team will use the Wireless Cyber-Physical Simulator that Lu's lab developed to simulate the wireless control system and collaborate with Emerson's Process Management division, which will provide case studies that they will incorporate into their simulations.

"We're going to use actual networks and controllers in this work, and we've found a nice way to make them interact, how to evaluate them, how to characterize the performance, and how to control it," Gonzalez says. "Our goal is to define a new way of deploying networks in practical applications."

Ultimately, the team plans to make its software developed in the project available as open-source and will release the data produced by its testbed once published.

Gonzalez plans to incorporate some of the research into the Introduction to Engineering Design course that he teaches to first- and second-year undergraduates, as well as into graduate courses, and Lu plans to incorporate the research into several undergraduate computer science courses.

The School of Engineering & Applied Science at Washington University in St. Louis focuses intellectual efforts through a new convergence paradigm and builds on strengths, particularly as applied to medicine and health, energy and environment, entrepreneurship and security. With 90 tenured/tenure-track and 40 additional full-time faculty, 1,300 undergraduate students, more than 900 graduate students and more than 23,000 alumni, we are working to leverage our partnerships with academic and industry partners — across disciplines and across the world — to contribute to solving the greatest global challenges of the 21st century.