Omid Abari

Q&A with Professor Omid Abari

Omid Abari is an Assistant Professor of computer science at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering. He was recently highlighted during UCLA Samueli’s Virtual Bruin Engineers Reunion event. His research interests are in all aspects of the Internet of Things (IoT) networks and systems, from the physical layer to the application layer. Learn more about his work in our exclusive Q&A.

“Donor support can provide a great opportunity for us to perform higher-risk projects which target social good.”

Q: What are some of the research projects that you are focusing on for this year?
This upcoming year, we are focusing on two main projects. The goal of the first project is to make high-speed internet connectivity accessible world-wide — especially in rural areas. While cable systems can offer very high-speed internet, bringing high-speed cables to everything and everywhere is neither practical nor cost effective. Therefore, the solution is to offer high-speed internet using wireless systems. My research group is focusing on developing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) wireless networks and smart radio environments. In particular, we use UAVs to bring high-speed wireless connectivity to inaccessible areas, and also develop smart metasurfaces which can be deployed in the environment and walls, making them invisible to high frequency wireless signals.

The second project focuses on developing battery-free radio frequency identification (RFID) sensors to enable smart environments. For this project, one application that we are focusing on is digital farming. The rise in global food demand has motivated several IT companies including Microsoft to work towards digital farming where the Internet of things (IoT) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) are used to augment decision-making in farming systems and thus improve food system outcomes. Yet, there is a key challenge: existing agriculture sensors are costly, battery powered, and require regular maintenance, which makes them less than ideal for digital farming. My research group is solving this issue by developing sensors that cost just a few cents, and transmit their measurements wirelessly without having a battery. To achieve this, we are designing novel algorithms and hardware which transform commercial battery-free RFID tags into sensors that can be deployed near plants to measure moisture level, light intensity, temperature, and even soil PH.

Q: How do you work with undergraduate and graduate students in these research projects?
I involve undergraduate and graduate students in my research projects in different ways. For undergraduate students, I typically have them work on tasks that are well-defined and can be done in a shorter period of time. My goal is to give them a good idea of what the research is like, while still allowing them to see an end-to-end process without getting frustrated. For graduate students, we typically give them open research problems where sometimes the tasks and steps are not well defined. The goal is to enable graduate students to think and come up with out-of-box solutions to solve real-word problems.

Q: How will your research be translated into new technologies?
My research is very multi-disciplinary and application oriented. This means that there are more opportunities to translate our research into new technologies. In most projects, we work with IT companies that can directly benefit from our research results in their products. Moreover, we also file patents which creates the opportunity to develop start-ups based on our research.

Q: As we prepare to return to campus in the Fall, what are you most looking forward to at UCLA?
The main thing that I am most looking forward to at UCLA is finally meeting my undergraduate and graduate students and being able to work closely with them. Since I started my career at UCLA in the middle of the pandemic, I have not yet had a chance to meet them in-person.

Q: How could private funding through donor gifts enable you to further your research at UCLA? (What kind of role do you think philanthropy could play in your work?)
: Private funding from donors could have a significant impact on our research by providing opportunities to do high-risk, high-reward projects. Unfortunately, most existing funding opportunities are not allocated for high-risk projects. However, donor support can provide a great opportunity for us to perform higher-risk projects which target social good. For example, over the past years, I have taught an “IoT course for social good” where students worked on developing systems for social good. Donor funding would enable us to progress many of these projects and get them closer to becoming real technologies.