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The Critical Need for Research in Cyber-Physical Systems

Investments in training and research are essential to unlocking the promise of this technology and maintaining U.S. superiority.

An exciting technological revolution is under way regarding systems that connect the physical and cyber worlds. The need for skills across many disciplines to invent, design, build and deploy these systems, known as cyber-physical systems(CPSs), is greater than ever before.

Cyber-physical systems are typically complex safety-critical systems such as those in commercial aircraft, military systems, nuclear plants, automobiles and advanced medical devices.

As the “things” in a CPS are being attached to the Internet (and as the IoT community expands well beyond simple household appliances), these two disciplines are increasingly overlapping. For example, the “industrial Internet” — the integration of industrial machinery and networked sensors — is essentially both a CPS and an IoT system.

Funding Needed

U.S. researchers, entrepreneurs and industry have led with breakthrough capabilities in CPSs — from efficient, affordable automobile systems to energy-saving adaptive thermostats that don’t require programming. But worldwide competitors can take on these designs and provide them at lower cost.

U.S.-developed CPSs would provide benefits and opportunities for medicine, transportation, agriculture, energy and defense, but only if funding for CPS research can sustain our advantage.

These systems can support home healthcare for the world’s aging population, streamlined and efficient transportation systems along with microagricultural efficiencies, smart grids and next-generation military systems. Their economic impact is expected to be enormous, but rapid progress in the U.S. is needed to remain globally competitive.

CPS development has benefited from the proliferation of inexpensive, ubiquitous sensors and actuators, the pervasiveness of wireless communications and the widening reach of the Internet. This technology has transformed designs so that previously self-contained systems, such as cars, may now contain numerous networked CPS deployments. These can interact via the Internet, providing capabilities such as collision avoidance and autonomous parking.

CPS projects like these are sophisticated systems operating in complex environments, interacting with the Internet and exhibiting a high degree of autonomy. Open operating environments bring a need for highly robust solutions that address the real-world complications that might occur.

For example, a home energy savings system and a home healthcare system may take actions that contradict each other: one turning off lights and opening windows to save energy while the other turns on lights to minimize the probability of depression and closes windows to avoid a draft.

Funding to support research in CPS technology is both insufficient and uncoordinated. While the National Science Foundation and a few other agencies have taken the lead in providing research funding, only a very few of many strong proposals in CPS research are supported.

A Secure Path Forward

At a meeting organized by the National Academies’ Computer Science and Tele- communications Board, several major companies argued that a lack of talent in CPS technologies is responsible for a dearth of products coming to market.

What is the best path forward? Increased and coordinated funding should be organized around core cross-cutting science, domain-specific thrusts, national test beds for hands-on research, and training in each domain. Colleges and universities must design new engineering education paths, and they must receive funding to facilitate the design of a new curriculum to train CPS engineers.

If government and educational institutions provide the necessary support, the next generation of cyber-physical systems holds the promise to keep the U.S. in the forefront of this critical technology.

Alessandro Tondo/ThinkStock
Feb 24 2015