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Research: The Internet of Things

News Story

IoT is hot, hot, hot, and Seidenberg’s Miguel Mosteiro, PhD, is delving deep into what makes the world’s smart devices tick.

A refrigerator that can track what items you need more of. A mattress that automatically adjusts to your maximum comfort level. A home assistant that doubles as a security system.

Such is the promise—and in some cases, the reality—of The Internet of Things (IoT). Loosely defined as an interconnected network of devices, appliances, vehicles, and more, the IoT has revolutionized consumer technology and has already altered the ebbs and flows of our everyday lives in dramatic fashion. In 2017 there were an estimated 8.1 billion IoT devices, a number that is expected to balloon to a whopping 30 billion by 2020.

Understanding the rise and increasing importance of the IoT, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Miguel Mosteiro, PhD, wants to investigate the particulars. Through collaboration with the University of Liverpool and funding from the UK Royal Society, Mosteiro is studying the information-dissemination aspect of IoT systems, identifying current problems, and potentially developing new algorithms that will be needed as the IoT grows in size, scope, and overall complexity.

“The Internet of Things is an area that is very broad. Nowadays when you think about the IoT, most people think about smart thermostats and daily devices that are connected through the internet,” says Mosteiro. “But it’s actually much broader than that. It is envisioned as an infrastructure that will support, for instance, health monitoring—instead of staying in the hospital, people would carry around sensors. Or in catastrophe management, maybe you can deploy sensors in a volcano erupting to monitor any physical measurements that are needed to counter the catastrophe. There are many, many applications that can be considered within the broad spectrum of the IoT.”

Within the IoT, Mosteiro’s research is focusing on this aforementioned sensory aspect. Namely, the ways in which sensors and network nodes within the IoT communicate with each other, and the infinite implications these interactions can have.

“You deploy a large number of nodes, and with communication and processing capabilities, they have to build a communication network among them, and start transmitting messages with the purpose of monitoring something—temperature, for instance.”

Mosteiro notes that these are extremely tiny devices sometimes deployed by the millions, once referred to as “smart dust.” The challenge for the research is to come up with ways to better organize this "dust," so that it develops into a collaborative, working network that will assist the greater goal in mind.

“The specific part of the IoT that we are focusing on is usually called ad hoc wireless networks. We are studying the challenges of starting the communication, and transmitting the information. What you have is information that is collected, or injected, at a network node. This information has to be transmitted to the rest of the nodes in the network.”

In other words, Mosteiro is investigating how to make these smart devices smart—and in some cases, smart enough to avoid catastrophes and worst-case scenarios that can arise from IoT devices unintentionally wreaking havoc, or being used by bad actors to cause harm.

“To do a theoretical study, you need to model worst-case scenarios. We evaluate our solutions assuming the worst possible conditions we can handle with the algorithms we develop. In the more practical approach, people tend to evaluate the communication protocols assuming what is expected—you expect so many nodes to fail every now and then. Our plan is to do both. We want to develop algorithms that provide worst-case guarantees, but also evaluate them in practice under average conditions and see the results we can observe.”

Mosteiro also hopes that, just like the nodes he is examining, that he will be able to disseminate the information he’s uncovered through academic publishing in scientific journals, and presentations at conferences. In just a few weeks Mosteiro and his co-investigator will be honored at the 45th International Colloquium on Automata, Languages, and Programming in Prague, Czech Republic, for a paper they wrote that precludes this particular project.

Ultimately, Mosteiro hopes to apply a method to the madness that is our increasingly smart world.

“Our aim from the theoretical point of view is to show not only new communication protocols, but also give mathematical proof of their efficiency. From a practical perspective, we would like to come up with protocols that perform well in practice. And hopefully to transfer this technology to industry—if we come up with good communication protocols, you can transform these in devices that are running in the real-world.”