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Sending a message: Engineer calls for wireless communications revolution

Associate professor Daniel Bliss works with students in his lab to confront both hardware and protocol design problems, essential for managing society’s increasingly diverse communication needs. Photo by Nora Skrodenis/ASU

November 22, 2016

How would we construct our wireless communications systems if we could start from scratch?

Decades of discovery in wireless communication have transformed society, but the journey has left us with wireless systems that are much too rigid and fragile.

“The current state of wireless communications is absolutely amazing, but also something of a mess,” said associate professor of electrical engineering Daniel Bliss.

But Bliss isn’t being critical without being proactive — and bold — in advancing research that aims to usher in a revolution for wireless communications.

His efforts are supported in part by a $2.1 million two-year grant from Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects group.

Google ATAP specializes in delivering results through high-risk, high-impact programs. Utilizing a model derived from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), each project operates on a strict two-year timeline and brings together teams of researchers from multiple institutions.

The team includes professor Chaitali Chakrabarti and assistant professor Umit Ogras, both faculty members along with Bliss in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, as well as collaborators at Google, Cornell University, the University of Southern California, Stanford University and more.

Explaining the current problem, Bliss said, “Our communications standards are the result of local engineering optimizations that have over time led to a relatively small set of suboptimal wireless standards when applied to any problem outside of the scope for which they were specifically designed.”

As the Internet of Things develops, and as users increasingly desire greater access, reliability, data rates and communications diversity, we can expect more kinds of wireless communications to further complicate these overburdened systems.

Society is experiencing increasing diversity in wireless needs and consumption, while simultaneously facing questions about how much energy is available.

Though the specifics of his research efforts are protected by proprietary agreements, Bliss’ approach has the potential to reduce wasted power in accordance with a user’s data rate.

“Our wireless systems are confronted with both hardware and protocol design problems, and addressing these problems is essential for managing society’s increasingly diverse communication needs,” Bliss summarized.

He points out a common and growing problem that our wireless devices continuously waste a large quantity of power. For example, Wi-Fi access points needlessly consume significant power even when not being accessed by users.

“Our wireless systems wait for people to use them, but in the waiting period they are just burning power,” said Bliss.

A solution lies in improving the protocol and hardware simultaneously.

“If everyone had a wake-up protocol built into their home router that turned off the wireless consumption when inactive, we would save significant amounts of power right away,” said Bliss.

Bliss’ research doesn’t offer solely technical improvements.

“Research in improving our wireless systems can address a number of important social and practical issues,” he said.

For example, affluent high-density wireless users are well served by current LTE protocols, but much of the world’s population is not. Bliss’ research poses a solution that could dramatically improve the wireless connectivity for this underserved population, resulting in larger access to information and greater opportunity.

“This research is relevant to everyone who uses wireless technology,” said Bliss, adding that Google is interested in funding this research because of its continued emphasis on improving access to wireless information. It is also relevant to companies that design wireless devices like home networks, smart refrigerators and anyone bringing about the Internet of Things.

“As wireless technology makes more and more contact with everything we do, having wireless systems that improve our quality of life and serve all of us well will become increasingly important,” said Bliss.

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