The U.S. Department of Defense has awarded a $246,000 Defense University Research Instrumentation Program (DURIP) grant to researchers in Virginia Tech’s Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering for advanced research on wireless communications networks that are critical during military maneuvers.

DURIP grants are highly competitive and are awarded to enhance academic research capabilities in areas that are important to national defense. Among the research proposals selected for this year’s DURIP grants, the Virginia Tech project is the only one in the area of wireless networks.

Thomas Hou, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and principal investigator on the DURIP project, will work with Professor Jeffrey Reed, deputy director of Virginia Tech’s Mobile and Portable Radio Research Group, and research scientist Shiwen Mao to create a testbed platform for wireless mobile ad hoc networks and wireless sensor networks. The platform will be the first of its kind at a U.S. university.

Military mobile ad hoc wireless networks can be set up to connect military groups that need to maintain communications while on the move — including personnel in the field, tanks and helicopters on maneuvers, or ships at sea, Hou said.

Wireless sensor networks, on the other hand, are stationary. They are often deployed in areas hostile to humans and can relay a variety of observational data — video and audio as well as scalar data such as temperature and pressure — to military personnel stationed at safer vantage points.

Each network set-up has its advantages. “Mobile ad hoc networks are perfectly suited for military communications,” Hou said. “Sensor networks have the potential to enable new military applications that require on-site, unattended, high-precision and real-time observation over a vast area.”

The potential integration of these two network types is viewed as a key building block for the “network-centric” communications infrastructure that the Department of Defense wants to develop, Hou said.

However, ad hoc and sensor networks have fundamental differences in their architectures and characteristics, and so far, they have been researched and developed separately. Hou, Reed, and Mao will use the testbed platform they are building with the DURIP grant to investigate ways to integrate ad hoc and sensor networks in order to make them inter-operational.

“We plan to construct a two-tiered logical network architecture with a wireless sensor network on the lower tier and a mobile ad hoc network on the upper tier,” Hou said. “This architecture should seamlessly integrate the sensing capabilities of the sensor network with the processing and communications capabilities of the ad hoc network, all within a common platform.”

The testbed platform will be housed in Virginia Tech’s Torgersen Hall, a building designed and wired to host advanced research in communications and computing.

“In addition to enabling Dr. Hou and his team to expand their current experimental research on wireless ad hoc and sensor networks, this testbed platform will significantly enhance Virginia Tech’s ability to conduct future Department of Defense-funded research,” said James Thorp, head of electrical and computer engineering. “This acquisition also will help us enhance wireless communications and networking courses for the graduate curriculum.”

Since joining the Virginia Tech faculty in 2002, Hou has attracted a number of significant grants for his research in the area of wireless ad hoc and sensor networks. In 2003 he won an Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award and, along with Professor Scott Midkiff of electrical and computer engineering, secured a National Science Foundation (NSF) Information Technology Research grant. In 2004, Hou won a Faculty Early Career Development Program Award, the NSF’s most prestigious grant for junior faculty at the beginning of their careers.