A team of wireless researchers and doctors from Rice University (Rice) and The Methodist Hospital Research Institute (Methodist Hospital) have won a $2 million federal grant to design and test next-generation wireless platforms and remote patient monitoring devices in Houston’s working-class Pecan Park neighborhood.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded the money to a six-person team of researchers from Rice’s Center for Multimedia Communication (CMC) and from the Abramson Center for the Future of Health, a joint effort by Methodist and the University of Houston. The funding was made possible by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA).

“This funding will allow researchers at Rice and Methodist to continue and expand upon previously funded NSF programs aimed at using wireless technology for health care and slashing the costs of wireless R&D,” said the grant’s principal investigator Ashutosh Sabharwal, CMC Director and Assistant Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Rice.

The grant will fund development of CMC’s WARP project in radical new directions. Short for “wireless open-access research platform,” WARP is a turnkey, open-source platform that slashes the costs of creating test-bed systems for wireless R&D. Researchers using WARP don’t need to buy new radio transmitters, wireless routers and network access points for each network they want to test. Instead, they simply write computer programs that configure the WARP system to act like the network they want to test.

WARP provides a ready, accessible network for untethered, frequent remote monitoring of patients with heart failure and diabetes, both chronic conditions that can be managed much more effectively on a day-to-day basis, rather than relying on monthly physician office visits. Every morning, patients can step on a Blue Scale, a sensing device that looks like a regular bathroom scale, and the scale will automatically and securely transmit all necessary cardiac output data to the patient’s physician, alerting him or her to any small changes that can be easily managed. This prevents small problems from turning into larger health issues over time, and it is done in an environment that is easy for the patient.

“Many chronic diseases should be treated on a daily, or even hourly, manner,” said Dacso. “Living with diabetes or heart failure can be much easier and safer if it’s treated with constant, small lifestyle adjustments. Teaming the WARP system with remote patient monitoring devices like Blue Scale provides patients with a way to do just this”.

The new project will use CMC’s WARP infrastructure on a high-speed wireless network in Pecan Park that is operated by Houston nonprofit Technology For All. Using this network, the team will design next-generation mobile devices for health care and other applications that send and receive data far faster than today’s best smart phones. The research team includes Rice ECE professors Behnaam Aazhang, Joseph Cavallaro, Edward Knightly and Lin Zhong, as well as Methodist physician Clifford Dacso, who holds the John S. Dunn Sr. Research Chair in General Internal Medicine at The Methodist Hospital and is the Executive Director of the Abramson Center.

Already adopted by more than 50 research groups worldwide, WARP is making possible the deployment of many breakthrough concepts, and it is gaining momentum as an invaluable tool that helps researchers better understand unexplained behaviors in operational wireless networks.

“Competition was fierce for ARRA funding, and the NSF’s decision to fund Rice University’s innovative research programs in wireless communications truly shows the respect that our peers have for the WARP program,” said Jim Coleman, Vice Provost for Research at Rice.

As part of the project, the team will work closely with long-term ECE corporate affiliates Texas Instruments and Xilinx Incorporated.