Ha Nguyen

$2.8-M NSERC-Cisco chair aims to transform the Internet of Things

University of Saskatchewan (U of S) engineering researcher Ha Nguyen has been awarded $1.38 million by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)—and matching funding from industry partner Cisco Canada —for a research chair to help address the huge demand the Internet of Things (IoT) will create for transmitting and tracking data.

The IoT aims to seamlessly connect via the Internet computing devices embedded in everyday objects—such as smart-phones, refrigerators, cars, and traffic lights—enabling them to send and receive data. By some estimates, as many as 50 billion sensor-equipped devices, ranging from smartphones and laptops to equipment in health care, mining, manufacturing, agriculture and transit systems, will be integrated via the Internet by 2020.

The IoT is gaining worldwide attention because of its immense potential to change how we live and work, with nearly everything from human beings to the machines we use increasingly becoming interconnected in cyberspace.

“This partnership combines expertise in our engineering college and at Cisco to develop new wireless sensing technologies that will potentially integrate any electronic object with the Internet and improve communications in a host of areas such as health care, pollution monitoring, transportation, home security, and mining,” said U of S Engineering Dean Suzanne Kresta.

Nguyen is developing a network that uses very little power to transmit information between devices or between devices and humans.  The network would operate on an unlicensed bandwidth that doesn’t require purchasing expensive wireless spectrum space. The low-power signals, sent from transmitters using ordinary batteries, would have to reach distances of up to 20 kilometres and efficiently serve indoor and underground applications.

“Boosting the range and reliability of information transmission over the wireless channel without consuming more power or radio bandwidth is a major part of the project, and I am excited about it,” said Nguyen, U of S electrical and computer engineering professor who has spent more than 16 years researching broadband wireless networks. “It’s a big challenge, but I am optimistic we will obtain innovative and useful solutions.”

Development work has begun over the last few months. “We got some very good results. We are in the process of filing a couple of patents with Cisco,” Nguyen said.

“Cisco strongly believes the future will continue to be shaped and defined by technology, and IoT will eventually touch all aspects of our lives,” said Rola Dagher, President, Cisco Canada.

“Investing in IoT research is not only a smart decision, it’s a necessary one if we are to evolve crucial areas such as education, employment, health care, transportation and employment. This new research chair is another exciting step in Cisco’s long and successful relationship with the University of Saskatchewan, and a great opportunity to drive the possibilities of IoT for all Canadians.”

The five-year NSERC-Cisco Industrial Research Chair in Low-Power Wireless Access for Sensor Networks will involve two postdoctoral fellows, five PhD and five master’s students, along with undergraduates as part of equipping them with a high degree of skills in signal processing, wireless communications and sensor technology in IoT.

Nguyen aims to work with other leaders in the industry to transform a technology called LoRa, patented by Semtech in the United States, for long-range, low power consumption, secure data transmission in IoT applications.

The second part of the research involves figuring out how to use the signals from sensors on various objects to compute their precise location. Current GPS-based localization services aren’t useful for indoor applications, tunnels or mines.

“Mining applications are one of the main targets,” said Nguyen. “The knowledge, expertise and technology developed from this project will be transferred to Cisco for IoT applications, including in the Canadian mining industry.”

Cisco has established relationships with several mining companies that will collaborate on the project. In Saskatchewan, the International Minerals Innovation Institute (IMII), of which the U of S is a partner, and Nutrien are providing in-kind support to Nguyen’s group as there are potential benefits for equipment use and worker safety.

The research program also aims to optimize the energy efficiency of the wireless network for data routing by having sensors in the network equipped to relay the information, instead of direct transmission as is the case with the LoRa system, Nguyen said.

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