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Mitra receives NSF CAREER award for work on reliability of distributed cyber-physical systems

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By Jenny Applequist, Information Trust Institute
February 16, 2011

  • ECE Assistant Professor Sayan Mitra received a National Science Foundation CAREER award.
  • Mitra's project for this award will focus on the reliability of cyber-physical systems, which involve close coordination among computers that interact with the outside world.
  • Mitra will collaborate in his project with researchers for John Deere and Company to lead to real-world applications.

Sayan  Mitra
Sayan Mitra

ECE Assistant Professor Sayan Mitra has just won a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award that will support research on “Algorithms and Verification for Reliable Distributed Cyber-Physical Systems.” The CAREER awards are among the most prestigious given to young faculty.

Mitra, who is also a researcher in the Information Trust Institute (ITI), has a strong research interest in reliability of cyber-physical systems (CPS), which are systems that involve close coordination among computers that interact with the outside world by means of sensors and actuators. The CAREER award provides research funding support that will allow him to address the reliability of a special class of CPS, namely distributed cyber-physical systems (DCPS). DCPS involve multiple system components that are not all sitting in one place. As a result, on top of the general problems of CPS, DCPS present additional challenges, such as unreliable communication and undetected failures.

“Designing reliable CPS is challenging, because writing correct computer programs itself is hard, and now you are making these programs manipulate the physical world,” explained Mitra. “So how do you design and analyze these systems?”

As an example of a cyber-physical system that most people use on a daily basis, Mitra points to various driver assistance systems in the current generation of automobiles, such as anti-lock brakes and electronic stability control. Today, such cyber-physical systems are created in an ad hoc manner because the current development process is not very scalable, and adequate general principles and tools are not yet available. Thus, everyone who needs to make such a system is forced to build it, to a great extent, from the ground up. Mitra’s research will address this problem by working to identify appropriate “algorithmic building blocks” that can be assembled together to build such systems much more easily, while meeting certain reliability guarantees.

Mitra observed, “As soon as programmable computers were invented, people started worrying about correctness of programs! Automatically proving correctness of programs or automatically creating programs that are correct is a longstanding challenge, sort of the Holy Grail of computer science. At a philosophical level, it’s asking, to what extent can you automate creativity? The activity of coming up with a correct program, or a proof for correctness of a program, is a creative activity. While the general problem is unlikely to be solved in the foreseeable future, tremendous progress has been made in the last couple of decades, and there is now a hope for these technologies to influence specific engineering domains.”

In order to make the problem more manageable, Mitra says it is necessary to be somewhat application-specific, for example, by focusing research on automotive systems. The programs for these control systems, though complex, are usually much smaller than many other computing systems, so there’s hope for analyzing them automatically.

Researchers from John Deere and Company will collaborate with him on the CAREER-funded research. The company’s interest in the planned work grew out of a desire to find ways to design control systems for future generations of tractors with less effort. With Mitra’s envisioned “building blocks” available, the design and verification process would be partially automated.

Mitra obtained his PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2007 and joined the ECE faculty in 2008. In addition to ITI, he is also a researcher in the Coordinated Science Lab. His broader research interests are in the areas of hybrid, distributed, and real-time systems, and design and analysis of software for embedded systems.

According to the National Science Foundation’s website, the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program offers the NSF’s “most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations.” It is designed to provide crucial early financial support to particularly promising young faculty members who are just launching their careers.

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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