Feature Stories

Nirwan Ansari is Making the Communications Grid Both Smart and Green

Professor of electrical and computer engineering Nirwan Ansari

The blackout of 2003, an outage set off by a software glitch that quenched power in 45 million homes in the U.S. as it cascaded across the Midwest and the Northeast, forced the country’s electrical utilities to take a long-overdue look at the reliability of their distribution systems. It also proved to be a bonanza for research and innovation.

"The massive outage focused a lot of attention on the country’s power grid and generated interest in smart grid systems," recalls Nirwan Ansari, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, who jumped into the field at the time. He quickly determined that the system was not only fragile, but inefficient and wasteful as well.

“A lot of energy is lost on the way to the user as it moves across the transmission and distribution lines of the grid,” Ansari notes, adding that the surge in power-draining electronic communications over the past decade has put new strains on the country’s energy supply and the environment. "Demand increases continuously as we add a wide variety of new applications for voice, video, and data. It’s increasingly diverse. We can't say ‘stop it’ - and we don’t want to.”

Since then, he has made a name for himself as an expert in ‘green communications’ whose aim is to transform the country’s communications infrastructure into an energy-efficient one. NJIT has applauded his far-reaching efforts twice this year, first with the Saul K. Fenster Innovation in Engineering Education Award, and more recently, with the NCE Excellence in Research Award.

“Information communications technology (ICT) consumes a lot of energy. When we talk about reducing the carbon footprint, we need to talk about communications as well,” Ansari says. “Everyone uses lots of gadgets now and the communications infrastructure that supports these gadgets is built with a lot of redundancy in order to provision reliability and protection from failures, thus making it available 24/7. Many of the communications components are often left on all of the time.”

With his GATE (Greening At The Edges) project, supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), he is developing innovative mechanisms to make the so-called ‘last mile’ of the telecommunications system, the section of the network that connects to consumers, more energy-efficient.  Ansari says he noticed that the network’s communications gateways, called access nodes, use energy even if there is no traffic and so he has devised ways to put some of the communications components to sleep when they are not being used.

“So far, we have proposed a few solutions which have been published and in some cases turned into invention disclosures. For example, we envision that the base stations of future cellular networks will be powered by both on-grid energy and green energy, and we propose to maximize the utilization of green energy,” says Ansari, who will discuss some of these measures as the keynote speaker at the 2014 International Conference on Information Science, Electronics and Electrical Engineering in Japan later this month.

His FreeNet project, also backed by the NSF, aims to “liberate” wireless access networks from spectrum and energy constraints by using cognitive networking to detect and use spare spectrum for data communications and by powering the system with green energy.

The mechanism he proposes employs wireless nodes, or base stations, to optimize traffic volume by sensing spare spectrum and routing data transmissions to it.  Users with the primary right to the spectrum would allow secondary users access to the networks, and secondary users, in return, would help forward primary users’ data.

On a third front, Ansari is researching network security and information protection on the Internet, including methods to detect intrusions by epidemic worms and bots that compromise operations on the system, to track the source of the cyber attacks, and to defend against them.

“Ironically, advances in networking technologies are furthering the rapid propagation of worms and the growth of botnets, and thus exacerbating  threats  to the integrity of the Internet,” he says.

Ansari juggles a workload that is both multi-pronged, complex, and indeed, somewhat daunting. A prolific speaker, author, and editor, he is also an inventor who has been granted more than 20 patents over the course of his career. His first was for an algorithm to alleviate congestion in ATM (Asynchronous Transfer Mode) cell relay switches in what he describes as a “fair, fast manner.”

He notes that his academic career did not begin auspiciously, however. Born in Indonesia, his family sought refuge and economic opportunity in Hong Kong during the political turmoil of the late 1960s, and he stayed behind for a few years with relatives while his parents arranged his visa. His schooling fell through the cracks, and when he arrived in Hong Kong at the age of 10, he did not speak Cantonese and ended up 45th in a class of 46.

“I didn’t dare to dream of attending college at that time, definitely not of becoming a professor!” he recounts.

The seeds for his work ethic can perhaps be traced back to his undergraduate days at NJIT, where he once famously took eight courses and held down three part-time jobs during a single semester. He managed to graduate in 1982 with a perfect GPA, however, and was offered admission to the top electrical engineering graduate programs across the country. He began at the University of Michigan, later moved with his dissertation advisor to Purdue University, and then returned to his alma mater in 1988 to launch his academic career.

By Tracey Regan