An Interview of Dr. Saifur Rahman
Saifur Rahman BIO:
Prof. Dr. Saifur Rahman is the founder of ‘BEM Controls’ which works with IoT based smart building devices. With his immense amicability, anyone can make the mistake of not realizing that he is the Joseph R. Loring Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at his alma-mater, Virginia Tech. Giving lectures aside, he is the Founding Director of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech, President of the IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES) for 2018 and 2019 and served as the Chair of the US National Science Foundation Advisory Committee for International Science and Engineering. A Life Fellow of the IEEE, an IEEE Millennium Medal winner and an alumnus of Virginia Tech and BUET, we had the opportunity to talk with him over the implementation and impact of IoT in several areas of regular life, and also the power sector of Bangladesh.
“As an engineer, do not talk vaguely. An engineer is not a philosopher. Be focused and have a target. Focus on solving real-life problems.”
IoT for BD: Congratulations sir, on becoming the 2018-19 IEEE Power and Energy Society President. You are the Joseph R Loring Professor for Electrical and Computer Engineering at Virginia Tech and the director of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech. Sir, we would like to know about your research.
Dr Saifur Rahman: My research is based on four fields. I work on integrating renewable energy sources into the grid taking care of issues such as fluctuations, stability etc. and forecasting loads for buildings, as well as solar power outputs. My group and I have also developed an open architecture IoT platform to monitor and control any IoT device. The recent field that I am working on is block-chain applications for peer to peer energy exchange. We have recently received a grant for this research. In recent years, there has been an increase in the use of the rooftop solar panels. These panels continue to generate energy even if there is no demand. The surplus energy could be sold, and the transactions need to be recorded. Block-chain technology provides the advantage of recording these transactions in real time, basically like a ledger. This technology has also been used to keep track of the refugees in Jordan, where food distribution, healthcare and sanitation system along with the number of working people among the refugees were recorded.
IoT for BD: Sir we would like to know more about the open architecture IoT platform.
Dr Saifur Rahman: Open architecture means that diverse sets of devices from different manufacturers using different communication protocols can be integrated for a specific function. Suppose, you are constructing a new building. There could be building automation systems, rooftop solar, battery storage, security cameras and many other things. These things are bought from different vendors who will provide their own specific platforms. As a result, the building engineer will have to look over different platforms for different devices. To reduce this hassle, we have built a platform called ‘WiseBldg’, pronounced wise building, which can be used to collect data from many sources but show all inputs and control functions in one platform. If you visit our website, BEM Controls (www.bemcontrols.com), you can download some sample applications. The “Wisebldg” platform has been designed to talk to many IoT devices at different times. That is precisely why we call it open architecture.
IoT for BD: How is the IoT technology being used in other developed countries, especially in the power sector?
Dr Saifur Rahman: IoT is a definition of many possible things, you have every sensor in control. In the power sector, we have to sense frequency, voltage, current, power factor etc. in electricity lines. There have been different sensors connected to the system for a long time and we have used them in energy management applications. These devices are now popularly known as IoT devices. With respect to the electric power sector, there are various sensors for controlling many specific parameters. We are talking about bringing all of those to a single platform. This will provide a single substation with the scope of viewing active protection circuits, transformer voltages and even data from smart meters. To answer your question, in short, the IoT platform is being deployed to manage information from diverse sources so that all data can be viewed from one location.
IoT for BD: What skillset should the students in Bangladesh have if they want to compete with the IoT technology outside Bangladesh?
Dr Saifur Rahman: Students should mainly have software expertise. All the students in my lab use Python programming language. In Bangladesh, C++ and MATLAB are more common among the students than Python. Programming is not only for CS students. Students from other disciplines also need to know as many programming languages as possible. Only then they can compete and cope up. Power has been my field of application but most of the work that I do now is based on communication and computers. My job is to find a new software tool that can be used in the power sector.
IoT for BD: Sir, any advice you would like to give to those connected to the IoT sector in Bangladesh?
Dr Saifur Rahman: Some people have the wrong concept about the IoT industry. IoT is an ecosystem, not an industry. IoT can be deployed in various ways. For example, “WiseBldg”, the platform that we have built, can be used to integrate many types of sensors. I work with smart switches, plugs, thermostats which are all IoT devices. These can be used to monitor and control various end-use loads, temperature, humidity, ventilation, lighting, etc. over the internet from anywhere. If someone wants to work in this sector, he or she needs to be familiar with software like Python and write programs that can operate these devices and visualize their functionalities.
IoT for BD: Sir, our organization, IoT for Bangladesh, has been initiated with the vision of popularizing IoT among people since a lot of us are yet to know what IoT is about. We are trying to create a platform where people can showcase their work on IoT. Anything you would like to say regarding our initiative?
Dr Saifur Rahman: As we all know, IoT stands for Internet of Things. It is a very big term. This can mean almost anything – sensors, software, cloud solutions you name it. As an organization, you can arrange seminars, awareness programs etc. A lot of impactful things can be done, but you must be focused and must have a target. In my research arena, I write a lot of papers with the focus on problem-solving. I am an engineer, not a philosopher. So, I have to be specific and live by example. We need to work hard and look forward to solving real-life problems.
IoT for BD: Thank you very much, sir, for your valuable time.
Dr Saifur Rahman: You are welcome. Hope IoT for Bangladesh would go much further and fulfil its vision.