Engineering Departments

Computer Science

From left: Kurt Luther and Christopher North
Blacksburg, VA , October 27, 2015
Virginia Tech College of Engineering

Big data, the almost endless growth of information available today to individuals, businesses, and government agencies, is often a challenge “to make sense of because human cognition, while remarkably powerful, is nevertheless a limited resource,” said Kurt Luther, assistant professor of computer science at Virginia Tech.

For example, if an individual analyst is working on a complex task such as identifying a threat to national security, most advanced machine learning techniques do not have the needed capabilities to solve the problem. Neither does crowdsourcing, Luther added.

Crowdsourcing, in this sense, means soliciting contributions of data from a large group of people, most of whom are online users.

Luther and Christopher North, professor of computer science and associate director of Virginia Tech’s Discovery Analytics Center, have designed a series of four experiments they said will enhance crowdsourcing as a “promising technique for applying human intelligence to problems computers cannot easily solve.”

The National Science Foundation is supporting this work with a $500,000 grant over three years from its cyber-human systems program area.

According to Luther, the principal investigator on this project, the challenge is to “understand when crowds are more useful than computation” in the attempts to make sense out of a problem. The second task is to determine how to provide crowd investigators with sustained complex lines of inquiry and not spend their limited amounts of time pursuing dead ends.

“We are in the midst of a data deluge,” Luther quipped. “In 2008, the world generated 14.7 exabytes of new information, almost three times more than five years earlier.” (an exabyte is a multiple of the unit byte for digital information with just one exa indicating multiplication by the sixth power of 1000)

How can an analyst sort through so much available information?

Luther and North, who are both faculty members with the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology, think they have the answers with a novel concept they developed in computer science called context slices. The method uses a combination of human and computational guidance to give crowd workers only the information they need to complete their assigned tasks.

They will use their prototype in a series of experiments that are aimed at making better sense of big data with the simultaneous use of crowdsourcing. “Ultimately this system design will be a major step towards realizing our longer-term vision of developing powerful software tools to augment human intelligence and sense making,” Luther said.

As an example, Luther described a situation where an analyst working in intelligence might be investigating three different individuals suspected of being involved in a terrorist plot. After collecting a large stockpile of potentially relevant documents including police reports, depositions, and surveillance footage, the expert can launch the context slices software program and sift through and categorize related documents.

The software will begin seeking potential connections between the suspects using both computational and crowd based techniques.

Prior work conducted by Luther and collaborators Steven Dow, Nathan Hahn, and Niki Kittur at Carnegie Mellon University showed how crowd workers can synthesize information from diverse sources gathered on line to produce useful overviews. This work led to Crowdlines, a crowdsourcing system that generates an overview of a domain of knowledge, such as major topics in psychology, and allows users to easily identify the more common perspectives or idiosyncrasies across a diverse range of sources.

“From our earlier promising results, we conclude that crowdsourcing offers great potential to augment an individual’s ability to make sense of complex and unfamiliar topics,” Luther concluded.

The computer scientists plan to develop a new graduate course on social computing and analytics that will study the issues associated with big crowds for big data

Walid Saad
Blacksburg, VA , September 24, 2015
Virginia Tech College of Engineering

Smart cities with integrated power grids, wireless communications, and intelligent transportation networks could improve everyday life for millions of people, but they would also be vulnerable to any number of cascading failures, due to natural disasters, day-to-day operations, or malicious attacks. These problems could lead to power outages and disruption of communications, which could bring an entire city to a screeching halt.

A multidisciplinary research team led by Walid Saad, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, has been awarded a $1.1 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a framework that ties together techniques from network science, operations research and economics, machine learning, wireless communications, power systems, and psychology to develop processes that can give smart city systems the resiliency to recover from such failures.

The grant is part of a larger $2.5 million grant that is led by Virginia Tech and includes collaborators from Rutgers and Florida International University. The Virginia Tech grant includes researchers from electrical and computer engineering, economics, and the Virginia Tech Transportation Institute.

“Laying the technological foundations of tomorrow’s smart cities is one of the most critical challenges of the coming decade,” Virginia Tech’s research team wrote in their proposal.

Smart cities will require sharing and processing a huge amount of resources that are scattered across a number of critical infrastructures. These critical cyber-physical systems must work interdependently, opening many new points for failures that could easily spread to other areas.

The failure of a generator, for instance, could knock out power to residential areas, while also taking down wireless access points, causing a communications failure. Consequently, home customers, as well as connected vehicles that rely on the wireless network for control data, would be affected..

To prevent such failures from becoming catastrophes, the systems must be able to work together to manage common resources — energy, users, computational power, communication spectrum, etc. — to quickly recover.

The project goal is to develop a foundational framework to understand the interdependencies among a smart city’s critical infrastructures and to design new, resilient resource management techniques that are cognizant of both the technology and the human users of this technology.

The interdisciplinary research will weave together notions from the study of cyber-physical systems, security, game theory, behavioral economics, psychology, transportation systems, social science, and power systems.

The framework will lead to theoretical and practical advances, such as the development of rigorous mathematical techniques for delineating the interdependencies between different critical infrastructures through a novel mix of graph theory and machine learning; new resilient resource management mechanisms based on game theory; and new behavioral models and studies related to trust relationships between a smart city’s residents and critical infrastructure systems.

Saad has expertise in game theory, cyber-physical systems, and security. Others on team include Sheryl Ball, an associate professor of economics; Danfeng Yao, an associate professor of computer science and head of the Human-Centric Security Laboratory; Myra Blanco, a human factors engineer at Virginia Tech Transportation Institute (VTTI); and Tammy Trimble, senior research associate at VTTI.

This smart cities grant is part of a larger NSF initiative known as Critical Resilient Interdependent Infrastructure Systems and Processes (CRISP). CRISP funds three- and four-year projects, each with funding of up to $2.5 million.

Saad also received a $150,000 grant from NSF, announced as part of the 2015 Global City Teams Challenge (GCTC), an activity launched in 2014 by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) to showcase smart technologies with the potential to transform cities and communities around the world.

Saad’s GCTC grant is aimed at developing a machine-learning framework to enable the “Internet of Things” to dynamically identify, classify and authenticate devices based on their cyber-physical environment by leveraging data analytics tools. Saad is collaborating with Sanjay Raman from Virginia Tech’s National Capital Region on this grant.

The idea is to develop environment-based device credentials that can verify a device’s identity and validate the physical environment it claims to monitor and the actions it claims to be performing over time.

The research will involve high school students and science, technology, engineering and mathematics  educators, and deal with a variety of research topics, including security, cyber-physical systems and data analytics.

Written by Dan Radmacher.

Students from Virginia Tech’s Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering work on developing a smart radio.
Blacksburg, VA , September 16, 2015
Virginia Tech College of Engineering

Virginia Tech will host Spectrum – ShaRC, an adaptive and cognitive student radio design contest for students, and the first place winner will receive $5,000 in prize money.

Cognitive radios are similar to intelligent cell phones that can determine the best way to operate in any given situation. Instead of blindly following a set of predefined protocols, like regular radios, cognitive radios can now configure to their environment and their user’s needs.

The new cognitive radios are similar to living creatures in that they are aware of their surroundings and understand their own and their user’s capabilities and the governing social constraints.

The contest, open to all students worldwide, is organized by Wireless @ Virginia Tech and is supported in part by a $30,000 Motorola Solutions Innovation Generation grant from the Motorola Solutions Foundation. The grant is supplying the prize money for the first, second and third place winners, and travel support for participants in the final competition.

Teams will be supplied with basic working codes for software-defined radios at the beginning of each leg of the competition and will adapt or develop and implement algorithms to improve the radios' performance. Contest participants will also have the option to substitute radio code developed using the popular GNU Radio toolkit or other open-source software.

While the initial competitions test the students' submitted entries in signal environments generated by the contest organizers, a final invitational round for the top four designs is planned for the Wireless@VT Symposium and Summer School, to be held May 25 – 27, 2016. At that time, the top four teams will compete against each other for the final top awards.

Additional support for the competition comes from Virginia Tech's Bradley Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and other sponsors. Virginia Tech’s contest organizers include Carl Dietrich, Vuk Marojevic  and Richard Goff of engineering education.

Others who are working on closely related research and / or developing software that will be used in the contest include Goff, Jason Snyder, a project associate of electrical and computer engineering, and Michael Fowler, of Blacksburg, Virginia, a Hume Center research faculty member and Ph.D. student. Additional support comes from faculty and students in the department, as well as Virginia Tech’s Advanced Research Computing Center,  the department of computer science, and the Software Technologies Laboratory.

The contest organizers will be able to provide technical and administrative support to teams within and outside Virginia Tech through an email list or online forum, although they may not serve as team advisors.

An entry form can be downloaded from Wireless @ Virginia Tech’s website, and emailing teams can enter the contest by mailing the completed forms it to Dietrich with subject “Spectrum Contest Entry”.

About Motorola Solutions Foundation

The Motorola Solutions Foundation is the charitable and philanthropic arm of Motorola Solutions. With employees located around the globe, Motorola Solutions seeks to benefit the communities where it operates. The company achieves this by making strategic grants, forging strong community partnerships and fostering innovation.

Founded in 1953, the Motorola Solutions Foundation focuses its financial contributions on public safety, disaster relief, employee programs and education, especially science, technology, engineering and math programming.

Innovation Generation (STEM) Grants in North America

The Innovation Generation Grant (IGG) Program is designed to inspire students to learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) and increase engagement in STEM careers by providing support to education programs for elementary through university students and teachers in the United States and Canada.

Virginia Tech’s RockSat-X team includes (left to right) Seth Austin, Sebastian Welsh, and John Mulvaney, all of the College of Engineering. The team, comprised of 20 students, will launch a self-designed and built 3-D printer into suborbital space on August 11 from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.
Blacksburg, VA , August 10, 2015
Virginia Tech College of Engineering

How would a 3-D printer work in the microgravity of suborbital space after surviving a jarring ride 100 miles above the earth? A group of Virginia Tech College of Engineering students hope to have an answer next week after a launch at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

Ever the Hokies, the student designed, built and tested machine will 3-D print a plastic Virginia Tech “VT” logo. In space.

The experiment will fly aboard a 900-pound NASA two-stage Terrier-Improved Malemute suborbital sounding rocket, as part of the national RockSat-X program that puts university-led experiments into suborbital space. Virginia Tech is one of seven universities to participate in the launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, set for 6 a.m. Tuesday, August 11. Backup launch dates are scheduled August 12 to 14.

The space agency will live sstream the launch at its UStream webpage.

The use of a 3-D printer in space is not new. A 3-D printer is on the International Space Station. But this will be the first time such a printer will be used on an unmanned rocket during flight, said Virginia Tech RockSat-X team leader Sebastian Welsh of Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, and senior in the department of computer science.

“We wanted to be the pioneers of that and get to be the first to tackle the problem,” said Welsh, adding that the “massive challenge” motivated the team, which includes 20 students from across the College of Engineering, all working with Virginia Tech’s Center for Space Science and Engineering Research, or Space@VT. Co-leading the team is John Mulvaney of Versailles, Kentucky, and a senior in the department of aerospace and ocean engineering.

“There’s a lot of practicality behind it,” said Welsh of the field of 3-D printing, also known as additive manufacturing. “In the future as 3-D printing develops, we see a lot of benefits to it such as parts replication and repairs in space, so for example if a part in space breaks on a mission to Mars or the ISS, it takes a lot of time and money to get new parts up to the astronauts, if it’s even possible at all, but if there’s a means to manufacture the part on board the spacecraft it would make repairs a lot easier and potentially help save missions.”

The student-led project started one year ago under the direction of Kevin Shinpaugh, an adjunct faculty member with aerospace and ocean engineering.

Shinpaugh, who has worked on several RockSat projects in the past, said this is the first experiment for launch at Wallops that has come from students rather than faculty. He added that the project falls in line with an initiative set by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA, for short), to have astronauts in space build “new” satellites using “junk” parts from disused satellites, retrofitting the parts together with 3-D printed parts, versus creating entirely new spacecraft.

“In some ways, it’s a crazy idea, but in many ways, it’s groundbreaking,” said Shinpaugh.

The project comes with many challenges, said Welsh. The custom-built, mostly aluminum printer had to be less than 30 pounds, be compact, and take quite a beating – 20 to 40 g’s, that’s 20 to 40 times the normal force of gravity while reaching speeds of 3,800 miles per hour – of acceleration during the launch roughly 100 miles above the Earth.

The rocket will spend three minutes in microgravity, in which time the printer created by the students will use hot-melted plastic at 400 degrees to print its Hokie “VT” logo.

The printer already has been tested by NASA for durability, said Shinpaugh. NASA has what amounts to a massive version of a paint can shaker that you’d find at any home repair store for mixing paints. The device can mimic the violent shaking of a rocket launch.

In addition to printing, an onboard computer will record temperature, pressure, and acceleration data. Also, a HackHD camera will record the printer in action. Welsh and his team should be able to retrieve the printer and all data within seven hours of the launch and splashdown landing in the Atlantic Ocean.

“We plan to compare the object that was printed in microgravity to one that was printed here on Earth,” added Welsh. Microscopic analysis of the printed logo may show slight differences. After that, the group hopes to improve the printer and send it on a second flight, potentially with the ability to print multiple materials.

The team paid $24,000 to be manifested on the NASA mission, and the printer cost approximately $2,000 to build, using student-manufactured parts and off the shelf components such as belts and springs. Sponsoring the team were engineering company a.i. solutions, the Virginia Tech Department of Aerospace and Ocean Engineering, and the Student Engineers’ Council of Virginia Tech.

Additional experiments on the Terrier-Improved Malemute rocket come from the University of Colorado, Boulder; Northwest Nazarene University in Idaho; the University of Puerto Rico; the University of Nebraska, Lincoln; Capitol Technology University of Maryland; and the University of Hawaii Community Colleges. Students from all of the universities are expected to attend the launch.

How to watch the launch

Want to watch the launch of the NASA Terrier-Improved Malemute sounding rocket in person at Wallops Flight Facility, Wallops Island, Virginia? The launch is planned for 6 a.m. Eastern, Tuesday, August 11. Backup launch dates are August 12. The facility opens at 5 a.m. on launch day for viewing the flight, according to the agency’s website.

Can’t make the trip?  Set your worries aside. NASA will broadcast the event live on its UStream webpage. Regular updates from NASA Wallops also will appear at the facility’s website, and its Facebook and Twitter pages.

Updates, photos and more from Virginia Tech students at Wallops will be posted at the team’s Facebook page, as well as the Virginia Tech College of Engineering’s Facebook and Twitter pages.

Barbara Ryder
Blacksburg, VA , April 23, 2015
Virginia Tech College of Engineering

Barbara G. Ryder, the J. Byron Maupin Professor of Engineering and head of the Department of Computer Science in the College of Engineering at Virginia Tech, will be honored with The Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Special Interest Group on Software Engineering (SIGSOFT) Influential Educator Award on May 22.

Ryder achieved the annual award for her significant contributions in software engineering education, graduate student and faculty mentoring and efforts to improve the representation of women.

For more than 33 years, Ryder’s profession has been rooted in education and mentoring. As a result of her leadership, 15 doctoral candidates and three masters students successfully completed their programs. She also supervised four post-doctoral students.

Prior to joining the Virginia Tech community, while a faculty member at Rutgers, Ryder received the Graduate School Teaching Award in 2007, the Leader in Diversity Award in 2006, and the Professor of the Year Award in computer science in 2003.

Ryder is a founding member of the National Center for Women and Information Technology Pacesetters program that strives to increase the number of women in computer science. She continues working with Pacesetters, holding the position of Virginia Tech's executive champion for the program.

She has worked to increase the number of women graduating from college with technical degrees by targeting outreach efforts to high schools. She has organized visits to numerous high schools, providing the teenagers with interactions with mentors and with currently enrolled women in computer science. 

Ryder is a Fellow of the ACM since 1998, received the ACM President's Award in 2008, and its SIGPLAN Distinguished Service Award in 2001. She is an active leader in ACM, serving in multiple leadership capacities. She was a member of the Board of Directors of the Computer Research Association from 1998 until 2001.

She received her bachelor's degree in applied mathematics from Brown University, a master's degree in computer science from Stanford University, and a Ph.D. in computer science from Rutgers University in 1982.

ACM, (, is the world’s largest educational and scientific computing society, uniting computing educators, researchers and practitioners to inspire dialogue, share resources, and address the field’s challenges. The society strengthens the computing profession’s collective voice through strong leadership, promotion of the highest standards, and recognition of technical excellence. And supportive of the professional growth of its members by providing opportunities for life-long learning, career development, and professional networking.

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