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Feature Stories

Network Extremes
Computer scientists place networks in surprising places
A solar-powered wireless network on the shell of a turtle.

 Research on networks and networked systems can be applied in many important domains, such as emergency preparedness and environmental monitoring.

One can hardly think about “connections” without thinking about networks. And when it comes to networks, the Department of Computer Science at UMass Amherst has all the right connections.

The faculty of 40 includes pioneers of the computer networking world: Distinguished University Professor Jim Kurose*, whose research has helped build the foundation for principled network protocol and sensor network design, and Distinguished University Professor Don Towsley, who has made significant contributions in the modeling, analysis and control of computer and communication networks.

While many of their research efforts are aimed at establishing the theoretical foundations of networking, Computer Science faculty are also adept at taking their work out of the lab and into the field. For example, professors Deepak Ganesan, and Prashant Shenoy, both NSF CAREER AWARD recipients, are deploying a solar-powered wireless network on the Fort River in Amherst, MA. They are working with colleagues from The Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, and Amherst, Hampshire and Mount Holyoke Colleges to use this solar-powered RiverNetto observe fish, marine life and monitor water quality on the river. This testbed will also be used by Five Colleges faculty to teach field courses in river science, ecology, hydrology and environmental sensing.

Shenoy is also co-investigator along with Professor Brian Levine of the Massachusetts Center for Networked Sensing in Challenged Environments (NetSenCE). Funded in part by a grant from the UMass President’s Science and Technology Fund, the Center is developing affordable, robust, easily deployable wireless sensor networks and platforms, with an emphasis on marine and terrestrial environments. Partners include UMass Dartmouth, UMass Lowell, the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and connections to other partners continue to be made.

Professors Mark Corner, Emery Berger, Brian Levine and Arun Venkataramani are building sophisticated networked systems inside buses, under the sea, and on the shells of turtles. These diverse environments are testbed subjects for disruption-tolerant networks, which allow for routing in networks that are unstable due to factors such as mobility, intermittent power, environmental interference or even malicious intent. These sorts of problems commonly occur when an infrastructure is destroyed by natural disaster or war, but they also occur in wildlife monitoring, sensor networks (for example, radars), and underwater acoustic networks. This research has broad applications to domains such as emergency preparedness, remote sensing and communication in challenging environments.

Networking research in the department doesn’t stop there. Other faculty members are researching networks of intelligent autonomous agents; real-time processing of data collected from networks of sensor devices, such as radio frequency identification (RFID) tags; the analysis of social networks; and theoretical issues concerning the design and use of communication networks. A group of faculty in the department is also developing the software architecture, system control algorithms and theory and underlying substrate of distributed computation for a new generation of data-driven, networked sensors. These sensors – radars in this case – are being developed in the campus’s $40 million National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center –CASA– and will provide scientists the ability to better predict when and where extreme weather events such as hurricanes and flash floods will occur.

“The department has created an outstanding research program in which networking is clearly a strength,” says Professor Andy Barto, chair of the department. “We have a wide variety of research collaborations focused on networks that connect the campus with state, local and federal government agencies, private industry, and other academic institutions around the world. Networks are pervasive in life. Our research applies across disciplines and in a number of important arenas.”

*Kurose’s textbook, Computer Networking: A Top Down Approachis the most widely used in the field.

Karen Hayes '85