Professor Hossein Sarrafzadeh tells us about the exciting projects planned at Unitec’s newest research venture, the Computational Intelligence and Environmental Engineering Research Centre.
The recently established Computational Intelligence and Environmental Engineering (CIEE) Research Centre promises to provide cutting-edge research that will help the Unitec computing department become industry leaders, says Head of Computing, Professor Hossein Sarrafzadeh.
The new centre combines remote sensing and an emerging area of computing, the Internet of Things (IoT), with environmental engineering to develop tools and technology that can be used to address problems such as air and water quality in New Zealand and China, before being extended globally.
The (CIEE) Research Centre includes four main partners: Wuhan University and high tech company LJDY in China; Unitec and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) in New Zealand. There will also be collaboration with other interested organisations and industry partners. “Wuhan University is on China’s top 10 universities list, LJDY is a wellestablished technology company in China with over 100 technology staff, and NIWA is a high profile Crown Research Institute in New Zealand – these organisations combine with Unitec to form a highly credible team,” says Sarrafzadeh.
The first big moment in the centre’s existence will happen later this year, when a team of technical experts from China, headed by the chief technology officer of LJDY, will be in New Zealand to set up the software and hardware components. “Then in early 2015, we are planning to have a high-level delegation from China, including the Senior Vice President from Wuhan University and the President of LJDY, to help us launch the research centre along with our CE Dr Rick Ede and NIWA leadership and scientists,” says Sarrafzadeh. “We’re fortunate here at Unitec to have forward-thinking leaders like our CE Dr Rick Ede, Executive Dean Leon Fourie, and the Dean of Research and Enterprise Marcus Williams, who have enabled us to make this collaboration happen.”
The centre has been established in response to several clear signals in the computing research environment. “There has been a shift in China towards environmental management products, which was indicated by Prime Minister John Key in a speech after visiting China recently, where he had held discussions with his Chinese counterpart,” says Sarrafzadeh. “Added to this, the government has indicated four key technology themes vital for the future of the ICT sector in New Zealand. The Internet of Things – which is about the growing number of devices and household appliances that are being connected to the internet – and remote sensing technologies are on that list and our new research centre will focus on both of these technologies.”
Sarrafzadeh says the new research centre and the relationships it will foster with organisations both here and in China is invaluable. “Wuhan University has 27 professors and 80 PhD students in the department we are collaborating with, which will be a major boost to our capability here. And as part of the agreement the centre will also have an office at Wuhan University, which will give us a vital base in China to promote the many benefits of this research.”
The centre will be housed at Unitec, with high-tech equipment to be supplied by LJDY, and staff and other resources to be provided by each of the parties. “The equipment we will have access to includes the licence to use software that can create 3D models of our cities,” says Sarrafzadeh. “This tool allows researchers to see the city in 3D, both under and over the ground, and will enable us to create real-time visualisations of environmental data. Everyone is very excited about this capability. It will take the air quality research we have been doing in collaboration with NIWA to the next level.”
There are three main aims for the new research centre, says Sarrafzadeh. “The centre will offer education in computational technology and environmental engineering, as well as short courses run by the different partners through Unitec. Secondly we will conduct high-level collaborative research, and finally we will produce intellectual property that will create export opportunities for the New Zealand companies who will be involved in the various projects.”
Sarrafzadeh’s ultimate aim is to be on the cutting edge of the computing industry. “As far as I am aware, this will be New Zealand’s first centre of Internet of Things capability,” he says. “We’re not looking for small gains; we’re looking for big gains, which is what we did with the Cyber Security Centre, and that has been very successful. Our aim is for the CIEE Research Centre to become one of New Zealand’s Centres of Research Excellence with our collaborators.”
But there’s more to this collaboration for Unitec than research excellence, says Sarrafzadeh. “I think this opportunity is not just for the computing department or Unitec, it’s an opportunity for New Zealand as a whole. More importantly, it is a step in the direction that the New Zealand Government wants us to go, which is the creation of export markets for New Zealand companies.”