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NSF gives $13 million for UC Berkeley-led project bridging computer software and systems science
25 September 2002

By Sarah Yang, Media Relations

Berkeley - A project led by the University of California, Berkeley, to modernize embedded software systems, which run everything from an aircraft's navigation system to a child's robotic pet, is getting a $13 million boost from a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant.

The five-year grant, announced today (Wednesday, Sept. 25), will help researchers from UC Berkeley, Vanderbilt University and the University of Memphis combine the best of information and physical sciences, leading to safer and more efficient embedded software systems.

The award will support the development of reusable, inter-operating open-source software for embedded systems, including those that involve anti-terrorism technologies, autonomous robots and aircraft and vehicle electronics.

Other applications benefiting from the grant involve the use of sensor networks to monitor a building's seismic health or a home's energy consumption. The project also includes programs to better train students in the field of engineering systems.

Researchers say that many of the advances in software engineering are not making it into embedded software systems because they are idealized and do not address the physical realities of the day-to-day world.

"This is where the world of programming code hits the laws of physics," said Shankar Sastry, professor and chair of UC Berkeley's Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences and principal investigator of the project. "The field of computer science has become increasingly idealized and specialized, and the field of engineering has moved away from the fundamentals of programming."

Sastry is the founder and director of the Center for Hybrid and Embedded Software Systems, or CHESS, where the project will be based at UC Berkeley. CHESS is a major part of the UC Berkeley-based Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society, one of four California Institutes for Science and Innovation established by Gov. Gray Davis to foster high-impact research that will benefit society as well as drive the state's future economic growth.

"The embedded systems that operate a car's anti-lock brakes or a plane's navigation system cannot pause or reboot like desktop computers when there's a failure," said Edward Lee, professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at UC Berkeley and co-investigator of the project. "In those safety-critical cases, the systems are over-engineered, and costly redundancies are put in place to make sure there are backups if the primary systems fail."

Lee has become intimately familiar with air traffic control systems through his own research in the use of computer technology to restrict the flight path of airplanes. "Despite our frequent frustrations with malfunctioning software, most of us barely hesitate to put our lives and livelihood in the hands of software-controlled systems," he said. "This project is about making that software safer and more effective by bringing together the best of engineering systems science with computer science."

The NSF grant is part of the foundation's Information Technology Research (ITR) initiative to promote fundamental research and education in the field of information sciences and engineering. The UC Berkeley-led project is one of seven recipients of large NSF awards - ranging between $5 million and $13.5 million - from the ITR program. The NSF awarded a total of $144 million in ITR grants this year.

In addition to Sastry and Lee, the project brings together eight other UC Berkeley researchers in the Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences, including professors Thomas Henzinger and Alberto Sangiovanni-Vincentelli. Researchers from UC Berkeley will team up for the project with colleagues at Vanderbilt University's Institute for Software Integrated Systems and the Mathematical Sciences Department at the University of Memphis.

The project includes a strong educational component that promises to reap long-term rewards through better-trained engineers and programmers. The NSF award will support the creation of a Summer Internship Program in Hybrid and Embedded Software Research (SIPHER), headed by Janos Sztipanovits, director of the Institute for Software Integrated Systems and principal investigator of the NSF project at Vanderbilt University.

"The research is expected to have a profound impact on how we train students in several engineering disciplines," said Sztipanovits. "We will experiment with new forms of student involvement in research and training via the SIPHER program, which will provide funding for students of underrepresented groups and their teachers to interact with researchers at Berkeley and Vanderbilt."

In California, the program will include outreach efforts to encourage underrepresented students from the state's community colleges to pursue studies in technical fields.

The award will also support significant revisions to the undergraduate curriculum at participating institutions by introducing crossover courses for majors in computer sciences and electrical engineering. UC Berkeley's Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Sciences will be continuing efforts began five years ago to retool its undergraduate curriculum. The researchers expect to include new elective courses relating to hybrid and embedded systems design over the next three to four years.