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The National Science Foundation (NSF) recently awarded more than $12.5 million in grants to 17 research groups spanning 15 states, each targeting important societal challenges that can be addressed through computing and communication technologies. The two- to four-year grants will allow researchers to plan, prototype, test and build capacity for new models, technologies and tools to increase sustainability.
Advances in computing and information technology are essential to addressing the global challenge of environmental sustainability. Computational and data-enabled techniques, such as simulation and modeling, sensor technology and machine learning, enable researchers to better understand the complexity of the environment and to deliver solutions to achieve sustainability.
"From tiny, low-power sensors able to monitor and transmit information about the movement and quality of rivers to powerful supercomputers that incorporate petabytes of data to model weather, cyber-enabled technologies have the potential to greatly improve our understanding and management of natural and man-made systems," said Farnam Jahanian, head of the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate at NSF.
NSF's Cyber-Enabled Sustainability Science and Engineering (CyberSEES) program aims to realize this potential by advancing interdisciplinary research in which the science and engineering of sustainability are enhanced by new advances in computing. It supports research collaborations that bring together computer, communications and control experts with researchers in agriculture, power infrastructure and transportation to develop innovative ideas and prototype systems to preserve the planet.
The program complements the broader NSF-wide SEES (Science, Engineering and Education for Sustainability) effort, begun in 2012, that funds projects related to hazard mitigation, ocean stewardship and Arctic management, among other topics. All SEES solicitations share a common vision of creating a research and innovation infrastructure that contributes to a sustainable future globally.
The CyberSEES awards range from $300,000 to $1.2 million and support teams of researchers, in some cases across several universities.
"CyberSEES brings together researchers working in computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering with researchers in the geological sciences, biological sciences and emerging areas of sustainability and power systems," said Phillip Regalia, the NSF program officer who oversees the effort. "The CyberSEES program spans many areas because sustainability touches everything on the planet."
Among the recipients of the first CyberSEES awards are groups developing integrated management systems for data centers, electric grids and transportation infrastructure; teams working to improve crop production using underground wireless sensors connected to irrigation systems; researchers developing new ways to optimize and visualize ecosystem management in order to facilitate decision-making; teams using machine learning to better predict precipitation based on multiple sources of information; and even consumer-oriented projects, such as one that diagnoses faults in HVAC systems.
"Our new CyberSEES grant will allow continuing progress towards the goal of cyber-enabled sustainable agriculture through inter-disciplinary research involving sensor electronics, antenna design for underground placement, nano-scale technologies for sensing and energy-harvesting, and computing and networking science," said Ratnesh Kumar, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Iowa State.
Working with electrical engineers and agronomists, he is developing an integrated system to better manage the nitrogen cycle in soils to maximize plant production while minimizing pollution through runoff.
"There is a huge benefit to society in this work, which strives to create more sustainable ways to power our lives," said Diana Marculescu, professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. She leads a team of researchers based at CMU, The University of Texas at Austin and Penn State that aims to develop climate-aware hydropower generation able to maximize the energy harvested from rivers, while avoiding disasters like floods.
According to Marculescu, "Small footprint hydroelectric projects could create enough low-carbon energy to power an economy the size of Virginia while minimizing impact to the environment and surrounding communities."
As computing and communications technologies get cheaper, smaller and more capable, scientists are finding innovative ways of incorporating them into all aspects of life. Through the CyberSEES program, NSF hopes to embed these emerging technologies in ways that will have a positive environmental and social impact.