Focus on research: Prof Cormac Sreenan, Connect

Cormac Sreenan
Prof Cormac Sreenan, Connect (Image: Paul Sharp/Sharppix)

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26 September 2016 | 0

Prof Cormac Sreenan is Deputy Director of Connect, the Science Foundation Ireland research centre for Future Networks and Communications, and Head of the Department of Computer Science at UCC. In this interview he talks about his lack of surprise with the mainstreaming of smart devices and how devices and content are driving the move to faster networks.

Having worked with Bell Labs and AT&T Labs-Research in the pre-iPhone era are you surprised by how much people have come to rely on connected devices in a comparatively short space of time?
No, not all in fact. My team at AT&T had developed a prototype smartphone back in the late 1990s which was featured at the time by CNN as showcasing the future of voice/data networking. What we didn’t fully appreciate then was the fact that smartphones would come equipped with inbuilt cameras and sensors, which have driven innovation.

These days my research group here in University College Cork, the Mobile & Internet Systems Lab, is acknowledged for our research on wireless sensor networks, and more recently their applications for the Internet of Things (IoT). We also look at when connected devices become disconnected, such as when hikers get lost in remote regions or wireless networks fail. For example, in one project we are developing an innovative system of airborne drones equipped with software radio technology that can be sent on a search and locate mission, homing in on the lost hiker’s mobile phone. That work is in collaboration with UCC’s Prof Ken Brown.

Which is proving a more powerful driver of research: content or devices? Are we seeing a similar rate of migration from 3G to 4G as from 2G to 3G?
One could answer your question in engineering terms by describing this as a closed loop system. Ultimately demand for content drives the market and encourages innovation in terms of the requisite physical infrastructure and devices. On the other hand there are innovations at the device level that are disruptive and serve to create new markets for new content. The smartphone was one such innovation, but in the Internet of Things arena we are seeing a plethora of new sensing and actuation devices appearing in brand new application domains.

The migration issue I see as clear evidence of the content-driven influence, where the demand for 4G is essentially due to video streaming, placing it in a different scale to the 2G/3G shift.

The EU recently issued a statement saying a 5G standard is likely to be agreed by 2020 and a Europe-wide rollout will be completed by 2025. How realistic are these predictions?
Many of the largest mobile operators in Europe have commmited themselves to 5G trials by next year. Widescale deployment will be driven by demand, and likely to closely track growth in the use of higher-definition video and augmented reality applications. So these predictions are entirely plausible, but ultimately the pace of deployment will be governed by traffic demand. In our Science Foundation Ireland-funded iVID project we are collaborating with AT&T, EMC and the University of California to explore how networks must evolve to cope with staggering increases in video delivery, and in particular the role for software-defined network approaches.

Looking beyond the telecoms sector towards Internet of Things applications, what challeges are being encountered in the management of connected devices?
This is indeed a major challenge that the sector has yet to fully acknowledge. Looking at R&D in this area the focus has been very much on design and implementation of IoT devices and to some extent the supporting software infrastructure. But these are not deploy-and-forget systems. Once deployed, these devices will require management systems to ensure the operational performance, integrity and reliability of the system over long periods. It will usually be the case that devices will be in harsh or inaccessible locations, with difficult wireless conditions and limited energy supply. My team have first-hand experience of this from an experimental wireless monitoring and control system we deployed in an oil refinery in Portugal on the Ginseng EU project that we led at Cork. This encouraged us to develop solutions for maintenance-aware deployment and management of sensor networks. It also highlights the need for networking, device and data analytics researchers to work together so that, for example, the significance and correctness of data from a particular device can be quantified and used to guide network management decisions.

We’re starting to see the rollout of commercial wide-area networks in Ireland. Are we going to see a two-tiered Internet with devices without a screen on one tier for functional background applications and devices with a screen for personal productivity, media and gaming on another?
The deployment of wide-area low-power networks for Internet of Things is now a reality. As an example, within our SFI-funded Connect research centre, the Pervasive Nation initiative provides a LoRa-based testbed for experimental research and innovative sensor data acquisition services. These networks are specifically designed for low-power, low datarate communication over distances of tens of kilometres; on the surface addressing a quite different market need than existing mobile networks.

However, mobile standards bodies are not sitting back; they recognise the significance and are pushing ahead with LTE-based standards for the Internet of Things, ultimately hoping for a single network solution rather than the separation, or tiers, that you mention. I believe that operational and maintenance costs will be a major deciding factor in this arena, the outcome of which will have major ramifications for both wireless equipment vendors and mobile operators.

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