Information Trust Institute block of abstract images
Information Trust Institute block of abstract images

Pilawa wins Air Force Young Investigator Award to build inflight supercomputers

With a growing interest in the future of intelligence gathering, the Air Force has turned to ECE Assistant Professor and ITI Researcher Robert Pilawa-Podgurski to power the next generation of supercomputers for use during flight.

The Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR) awarded Pilawa $360,000 over three years as a part of its Young Investigator Program (YIP), which is geared toward promising researchers who have received their PhDs within the last five years.

Robert Pilawa-Podgurski
Robert Pilawa-Podgurski
The new computing systems that are being designed for the storage and processing of information are intended to be lightweight and compact enough to function on a plane, but at the same time powerful enough to meet the Air Force’s needs. According to Pilawa, having these data centers aboard planes will save time and improve efficiency of their operations in challenging environments.

“The Air Force captures a lot of images, sounds, and a lot of electronic signatures,” Pilawa said. “It’s very expensive in terms of energy and bandwidth to transmit all of that back down to the ground, so you would like to do some processing on board.”

Pilawa decided to pursue the idea for the Air Force after working on a stationary data center power delivery project for Google. There, he was a part of a team that designed the world’s most efficient data center to power Google’s existing servers. In the process of their discovery, the team found that the weight and volume of the power converters could be greatly reduced.

As a result, the AFOSR wants Pilawa to take the techniques he has developed for stationary applications one step further in the development of a flying data center. His group has extensive experience in development of high efficiency and small sized power converters, which to date have been designed for solar photovoltaic (PV) systems, electric vehicles, data centers, and mobile electronics. Some of the techniques he has developed for solar PV applications can translate to this new research area, while many new techniques for power conversion must be re-designed from scratch.

“While the next few years will see continued performance improvements using traditional architectures, there are serious questions about how far existing solutions take us,” Pilawa said. “With continued semiconductor scaling, the power delivery component of computing systems becomes more and challenging, owing to the reduced voltages, and increased currents. Traditionally, the power conversion has been designed as an entirely separate system, and today occupies a large portion of the space and weight of any data center. If you can design the power delivery and the servers together, what can be accomplished then? While our preliminary analysis is very promising, we don’t know the full answer yet.”

Since coming to Illinois in 2012, Pilawa has worked heavily in power electronics, focusing on solar energy, on-chip power converters, and fundamental advances in power conversion. He said ECE ILLINOIS has presented him with the resources and opportunities to explore his research goals, particularly with the AFOSR.

Although this was Pilawa’s first grant from the AFOSR, he expects this project to be the beginning of a partnership between himself and Department of Defense agencies.

“What I’m really excited about is that this is an opportunity to do more collaboration,” Pilawa said. “A lot of what we do, the Department of Defense agencies could greatly benefit from. We get to work on a very challenging application, and working on a cutting edge project like this gives us motivation to really push the frontier.”