NSF CAREER Award Emboldens Vasisht's Pursuit of Networking, Computing Improvements to Satellites

4/26/2023 Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Illinois CS professor Deepak Vasisht believes this work will enable nearly real-time analytics from satellite imagery.

Written by Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Since 2019, when he graduated with his Ph.D. from MIT, Illinois Computer Science professor Deepak Vasisht has explored space – specifically, through the lens of satellite networking – as an “exciting research frontier.”

Deepak Vasisht
Deepak Vasisht

Over that time, he has witnessed a drastic change in this realm, as the cost of satellites and their launches have decreased significantly. Technology advancements changed satellites from big, bulky objects that used specialized radiation-hardened hardware, to a smaller, sleeker object that utilizes the very same hardware that operates our computers and smartphones.

Recognizing the potential for further change, Vasisht received the NSF CAREER Award for his proposal, “Networking and Compute for Next Generation Low-Earth Orbit Satellites.”

“As satellites increasingly resemble the computational systems that we have worked on in the past, there has also been an unprecedented number of satellites launched every year. So, it is an exciting time as computer scientists, to look at satellites and study the computational and networking issues that emerge when these systems scale,” Vasisht said.

Through his successful NSF CAREER Award proposal, Vasisht leaned further into his research focus that narrowed over the years to next generation networking systems such as satellite networks, 5G, and in-body networks.

For this specific project, he said that the key problem he and his students will solve is the delay between an image captured by a satellite and its access by the end users.

“Our eventual vision is to enable nearly real-time analytics from satellite imagery,” Vasisht said. “Imagine if a satellite captures an image of an emerging forest fire, then we’d like to have that information right away and send it to first responders and forest service.

“Today, this delay can last from several hours to a full day. Our vision is to build new architectures and systems that can reduce this delay to a minute. In this project, we are going to work on different aspects of satellite-ground networks to make this vision possible.”

Vasisht has already worked on making wireless communications fast, low power, and reliable. This allowed him to confidently say that those same advancements extend naturally to satellites. In fact, he’s currently thinking of satellites as “smartphones in space with solar panels attached to them.”

The research community has solved similar challenges for smartphones – battery management, high data rates, and more. Vasisht expects to build on these learnings to design new computing systems for satellites. He’s already anticipated the problem he will encounter when working with satellites this way; Vasisht expects the fast motion of these satellites to be an issue that he and his students can overcome.

He also believes that improvement in this area can impact meaningful applications, providing him and his students enough inspiration to overcome any challenge.

“Obviously, I’ve already mentioned the impact of real-time tracking of natural disasters like floods and forest fires, but we can also improve the way we monitor airspace for tracking lost planes or aircraft intrusion. Additionally, we could impact environmental events like deforestation, illegal fishing, and maritime smuggling,” Vasisht said.

Calling the CAREER Award, “one of the most prestigious awards for early career researchers,” Vasisht said he’s honored by the NSF’s investment in the vision he and his research group presented.

It’s the students he works alongside who will help make this proposal a reality.

“I am grateful for my amazing group of students who drive most of the research we do,” Vasisht said. “I am lucky to have found a good group of students who make research fun, exciting, and rewarding. Similarly, I am also thankful to my amazing colleagues at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. I received great feedback that helped sharpen this NSF CAREER proposal.”

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This story was published April 26, 2023.