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Nebraska Goes Big

UNL software engineering research reaching new heights

By Kelly Bartling, University Communications

When a pilot takes the controls of a million-dollar jet fighter, she trusts experts have thoroughly tested its systems – from engine to electronics.

"'Does the software work?' The answer to that question better have been arrived at using a different means than testing on your kid's Xbox game," says Matthew Dwyer, a computer science and engineering professor.

Dwyer and a group of five other computer science engineers and almost 30 students at UNL's ESQuaRed lab focus on software dependability, complex systems and static analyses that study how people and computers work together predictably and reliably.

Boosted by at least 10 grants over the last 10 years including a recent $4 million award from the U.S. Air Force, the research group is thought by many to be one of the best in the U.S. or even the world in software engineering. In addition to Dwyer -- who recently had a paper selected for a rare annual award from the International Conference on Software Engineering as the most influential paper of the last decade – the group includes Gregg Rothermel focusing on evolving systems; Sebastian Elbaum on software testing and analysis; Myra Cohen on highly configurable systems, Witawas Srisa-an on embedded and real-time systems; and Anita Sarma on the human role in software systems. Five have earned National Science Foundation CAREER awards for emerging eminent research scholars.

Of the ranked top 50 computer engineering researchers in the world, three from the UNL team are on the list.

Their variety of challenges for ensuring software safety is wide. A new focus is programming and studying unmanned aerial vehicles – or UAVs. These small but sophisticated drone-like flying vehicles are being programmed to conduct specific tasks, follow colors, stop at prescribed boundaries and fly complex routes. Armed with data collectors like cameras, the UAVs will be an important emerging technology to perform all sorts of projects like scouting and monitoring agriculture fields or ranches, search-and-rescue in a disaster, patrolling a border or providing surveillance, monitoring bridge or building structures, or even flying along with Sandhill or whooping cranes to gather information for wildlife preservation.

The addition of the Nebraska Intelligent Mobile Unmanned Systems (NIMBUS) testing lab inside Schorr Computing Center has added a unique component to the group's research, and brings opportunities for further collaboration with UNL, Big Ten or other researchers worldwide. Their work impacts not only software development and the hardware that runs it, but also the understanding of how humans interact with computers.

"To date there's been very little work on trying to understand and capture in some precise way how human beings interact with software and hardware to achieve the overall objective. We're trying to take these techniques we've developed for reasoning about hardware and software and bring this other softer component, humans, into the mix." - Matthew Dwyer

Computer scientist Sebastian Elbaum says the impact of their work is becoming more powerful.

"Software is becoming more complex, more expensive to develop, and we're asking more and more from it. In a sense, we want more things, it's costing more and it's harder to develop," he said. Because a complex system like a fighter jet could have a life of 20 years and costing billions of dollars and affecting countless lives, it's important for these researchers to help find ways to assure the software is reliable as possible. Find out more about the UAV lab on their website.

Dwyer wins Fulbright to conduct research in South Africa

Matthew Dwyer

Matthew Dwyer, Henson Professor of Software Engineering in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering, has been awarded a Fulbright Scholar grant to perform research at the University of Stellenbosch in South Africa.

Dwyer, who leaves Aug. 1 for the five-month research trip, will be studying the application of mathematical analysis techniques developed to detect software errors to problems in ecological modeling. He will collaborate with faculty in the Computer Science Division of the Department of Mathematical Sciences and researchers in the Centre for Invasion Biology at Stellenbosch. Read the full story.