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Designing NY’s first statewide ‘internet of things’
By Eric Laine
The ‘internet of things’ (IoT) is an ever-growing catalogue of devices designed to connect to an array of available services. Refrigerators, thermometers, doorbells and cameras have become data collection points for home users looking to automate shopping lists or monitor energy usage.
Businesses and municipalities in urban and suburban areas have been quick to see the benefits of collecting data from individual sensors networked into a new kind of public infrastructure. They monitor and optimize industrial equipment, water and heating systems, automobile fleets and traffic lights, taking advantage of ubiquitous internet connectivity and reliable signal strength.
IoT can play a vital role in rural economic development as an enabler of a wide range of applications such as automated crop, soil, and livestock monitoring, smart water irrigation control and community health indicator monitoring. Rural areas, however, have been unable to capitalize on the efficiencies promised by the internet of things due to historically poor cellular connections and general lack of broadband access. This digital divide results from the reluctance of telecommunication companies to invest in remote areas, citing high installation costs and a lack of customers.
Led by Max Zhang, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering (MAE), and Stephen Wicker, professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), Cornell researchers are teaming up to bridge the digital divide in New York by designing the nation’s first statewide IoT public infrastructure. Collaborating with community partners in each county through Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), the team will set up networks based on low-power wide-area network (LPWAN) technology, a form of low-frequency radio. The National Science Foundation has funded the effort with a $1.5 million grant.
Designing and deploying the network across the state may not be the biggest challenge. The team will need to show communities how they can benefit from this new public infrastructure and inspire the next generation of engineers to do the same.
“We have to make technology available in a way that others will adopt it and get the most out of it,” said Wicker. “We're trying to improve municipal infrastructure in rural communities through telecommunications technology, but we have to understand local needs to have real impact.”
Communities will be able to take advantage of this infrastructure even in areas with poor broadband coverage. Multitudes of low-cost sensors can connect to a single gateway using LPWAN. Only the gateway, which could be miles away from the sensors, is connected directly to the internet.
“It opens up many more opportunities,” Zhang said. “If each device had to be internet connected, that really limits us in terms of power, cost and range, especially for rural areas. Even if you don't have internet, you still can have your devices connected.”
The broader effort started three years ago with a single gateway and antenna mounted on the roof of the CCE-Tompkins County building, providing LPWAN coverage to the city of Ithaca. To demonstrate the concept, Zhang led a team that used the public network to gather data from sensors monitoring pollutants in wood smoke and measuring building energy efficiency. In 2018, Zhang and Wicker received an award from the Academic Venture Fund of Cornell’s Atkinson Center for Sustainability to start collaborating on LPWAN research.
“Tompkins County is our first pilot, but we want to try a few other different places to see, if we deploy this and come up with some applications or solutions, whether people will use it or like it,” Zhang explained. “Hopefully that will generate valuable lessons for us before we present a plan to cover the entire state.”
Planning public IoT networks requires a detailed level of design, precise placement and sizing with respect to both bandwidth and coverage. David Shmoys, the Laibe/Acheson Professor of Business Management and Leadership Studies in the School of Operations Research and Information Engineering (ORIE), joined the team to focus on optimization.
“Optimization models studied in ORIE provide the means to balance cost with coverage and resilience in these networks, and investigate algorithms that find near-optimal solutions for these models,” Shmoys said. “Our research aims to transform these tools, building on advances in data science, and provide designs at much greater scales and finer degrees of resolution that allow for greater resilience and robustness.”
Rural communities provide opportunities for developing new networked technologies which can leapfrog traditional wired broadband. The project is using a co-design process between academic researchers and community partners, which will create living laboratories for research, education and community engagement. Zhang and Wicker have received letters of collaboration from every county, but they know simply building the infrastructure is not sufficient. To have a real impact on life in rural communities, people have to use it.
“We can’t assume we know everything,” Zhang said. “We have to work with communities and find out what will be the appropriate applications. That's really the most exciting piece.”
Understanding what communities need and communicating how they could use a public IoT infrastructure to address those needs is a major part of the project. Lee Humphreys, professor in the Department of Communication, joined the team to help this effort, Wicker explained.
As a social scientist, Humphreys is concerned with how people’s prior experiences shape their motivations to use tech innovations. Her research will help to integrate the needs of users into the design of the networks, and then analyze the impact of these networks on organizations and communities once implemented.
“When we design and implement new IoT technologies for organizations and communities, it's important to realize how their expectations can and should shape the implementation of these networks,” Humphreys said. “Rural technology innovation, development and adoption are an exciting area of both technological and social research because they have received far less attention than urban technology.”
The outreach efforts include a new engineering student project team—Cornell Engaged IoT—which has been working directly with organizations in Tompkins County to utilize the IoT infrastructure. The broad scope of the work requires collaborators in a range of fields, from understanding the physical factors of energy and environmental monitoring, to designing the devices and sensors as well as the software dashboards.
Alfredo Rodriguez, Ph.D. candidate in MAE, is leading the Engaged IoT team which is currently providing users with a feedback system for energy efficiency in buildings and local air quality data. “This project requires expertise in many disciplines in order to make a meaningful impact toward bridging the digital divide,” he said. The project team is supported by the Shen Fund for Social Impact, created by David Shen ’89 to address significant social challenges through novel engineering solutions.
Alex Coy ’21 is an undergraduate in ECE working on the team, primarily in radio frequency and embedded device research. “We provide efficient user interfaces so that our audiences can understand important trends in the data,” he said, “and possible steps to conserve energy, improve air quality, or otherwise help the Earth.”
Navin Ramsaroop ’21, an undergraduate in computer science, has been a researcher in the group for six semesters. He said the ultimate goal of his group is to help lower electricity usage across New York state by measuring usage in buildings, analyzing readings, and providing actionable advice on how to lower power consumption. “Our project also gathers many other metrics,” he said, “such as air quality readings, temperature and humidity, giving us the ability to connect and compare buildings throughout New York using numerous metrics, and accurately identify any anomalies building managers might find useful to know about.”
Rodriguez set the project team’s immediate goals. “Before the end of this academic year,” he said, “we are hoping to further expand our building electricity metering project and our woodsmoke measurement and alert system project throughout New York state to provide more users with real-time building energy performance and local air quality data.”
Wicker and Zhang are also working to expand interest in a public IoT infrastructure by creating Cornell’s first introductory IoT course, in which students will engage with community partners to tackle social, economic and environmental problems using the technology. In conjunction with the NSF effort, students will learn how to develop IoT-based technological solutions and how to communicate about the responsible use of IoT technology to create positive societal impact. The Cornell Engineering Information Technology Service Group is providing support to the efforts.
Cornell’s Office of Engagement Initiatives, whose mission is to support community-engaged learning, is another partner in the project. Ashlee McGandy, online education initiative content strategist, said: “We’ve directly supported the IoT work in two ways: through a supplemental grant that allowed the Atkinson team to add undergraduates to the research team, and through an Engaged Curriculum Grant to help develop the introductory IoT course.”
“The whole idea of IoT is so broad that there's not a single person who can handle this,” Zhang said about the multi-disciplinary collaboration. “That's why having Steve with wireless communication, data security and privacy expertise, combined with my application-oriented approach will give a much broader, much more comprehensive view at the introductory level.”
Wicker agrees. “Years ago, we [in ECE] used to share courses that focused on microcontroller-based applications because that's a natural thing for mechanical engineering. This is the first time we'll actually have a course that's co-taught between an ECE and an MAE professor, actually trying to blend communication technology with real applications and infrastructure. It's a great opportunity and a model for future engagement.”