Discovery Files

Dispatches from a connected future

Researchers from academia, government and industry team up to create networked solutions to society's problems

Anyone looking for a glimpse into the technologies that will change our lives, businesses and organizations in the coming decades received an eyeful at the Smart America Expo in Washington, D.C., in June. There, scientists showed off cyber-dogs and disaster drones, smart grids and smart health care systems, all intended to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

The event brought together leaders from academia, industry and government to showcase the results of six months of rapid team-building and technology development. The expo demonstrated the ways that smarter cyber-physical systems (CPS)--sometimes called the "Internet of Things"--can lead to improvements in health care, transportation, energy and emergency response, and other critical areas.

Among the demonstrations at the expo were the first commercially available autonomous vehicle (Aribo), which the U.S. military is testing on its bases; a number of interconnected home- and hospital-based sensors and software systems designed to create a "closed loop" of health care coverage; drones capable of delivering Wi-Fi to disaster areas; and dogs instrumented with sensors, cameras and haptic devices to allow them to glean information from dangerous environments and respond to handlers.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy launched the Smart America Challenge in December 2013 as a way of galvanizing the development of the Internet of Things. The Challenge brought together more than 100 researchers, who organized themselves in 24 teams. The June Expo was the culmination of the first phase of the project and gave a sense of the potential of collaborations around cyber-physical systems.

"So many of the breakthroughs of today and tomorrow are at the intersections of systems coming together to deliver compound awesomeness," said Todd Park, U.S. chief technology officer and keynote speaker at the event. "For 1+1+1 equals a supercool robot or an exoskeleton."

Industry, academia and government are all investing heavily to develop the core technologies that will allow devices to communicate and cooperate with each other far better than they do today. But the scientists doing this research--like the machines they are working on--often are not aware of, or in communication with, each other.

"Our nation had made significant investments in CPS in various sectors but they weren't talking to each other," said Geoff Mulligan, a Presidential Innovation Fellow who, along with Sokwoo Rhee, organized the event. "What if each researcher was to put their piece on the table to see how they fit together?"

The Smart America Challenge sought to de-fragment the research environment and build collaborations that tie disparate pieces of research and development together.

"Innovation and progress are best done in partnerships where government, academia and industry work together to promote growth and a safe and secure society," said Chris Greer, director of the Smart Grid and Cyber-Physical Systems Program Office at the National Institute of Standards and Technology.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has been a strong supporter of cyber-physical systems research, investing more than $200 million in the area over the last five years. These investments were noticeable in the researchers represented at the Smart America Expo. Eight of the 24 teams included members of the academic community supported by NSF. Many other projects were built on fundamental, NSF-supported research.

"Advances in cyber-physical systems hold the potential to reshape our world with more responsive, precise, reliable and efficient systems," said Farnam Jahanian, who leads the Computer and Information Science and Engineering Directorate at NSF. "NSF investments have supported researchers across the U.S. who have laid the foundation to enable the deep integration of computation, communication and control into physical systems--to make cyber physical systems a reality today."

This week and next, we'll feature examples of NSF-supported research from the Smart America Expo. Today:

Cyber-equipped dogs lead the way in search-and-rescue (see video above)

Researchers from North Carolina State University (NCSU) showed off pioneering work demonstrating the potential of technologies that allow dogs to gather information--and stay safe--during search and rescue operations.

"What we're hoping to do here is to begin the field of canine-computer interaction," said David Roberts, a professor of computer science at NCSU. "When we start to think about canines interacting with computers, the range of possibilities is essentially endless."

Among the applications they're testing are computer-assisted training, remote communication with dogs in the field and tools to help people with guide dogs better understand what their dogs are doing.

They accomplish these tasks by equipping dogs with video, audio and gas sensors (in the case of emergency response), as well as inertial measurement units that provide information in real time about the dog's posture and physiological monitors. Together, this information provides a detailed picture of what the dog is doing and enables handlers to characterize its emotional state.

The last type of capabilities they are working on enables handlers to communicate with dogs from afar. Using audio cues and haptic inputs (like the vibration on a phone), they are training dogs to respond to different commands in the field or around the house.