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WVU researchers aim to cut through radio interference that obscures signal detection

West Virginia Press Association

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. — A West Virginia University research team is working on ways to eliminate the rampant human-made radio interference from cell phones, televisions and radar systems that can block the detection of radio signals by astronomers.

Kevin Bandura

With $510,000 in funding support from the National Science Foundation, team members will develop new algorithms and hardware with potentially broad applications.

“As radio astronomy instruments continue to become more sophisticated, human-made signals need to be removed in real time before the information from the sky is reduced for astronomical interpretation,” said Kevin Bandura, associate professor of computer science and electrical engineering

New methods driven by the project’s results will be made freely available to the astronomical community and could also be used in other fields such as radar imaging, satellite communication, sound navigation ranging and other sensor applications. Although each of the mentioned imaging modalities relies upon different sensory environments, new interference detection methods will be easily generalizable to those fields, said Natalia Schmid, professor at the WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources, who is leading the effort.

Duncan Lorimer

The study will likely play a hand in helping detect fast radio bursts, which were co-discovered by Duncan Lorimer, professor of physics and astronomy, who is working with Schmid and Bandura on the project.

“Radio telescopes are powerful tools to explore the cosmos,” Lorimer said. “They allow for the detection of extremely weak galactic signals and the study of the radio transient sky, including fast radio bursts — enigmatic objects of unknown origin that can probe the large-scale structure of the universe.”

Due to the transient nature of fast radio bursts, removing radio interference is vital for survey sensitivity as it can prevent astronomers from observing parts of the universe.

Schmid, Lorimer and Bandura outlined a three-pronged approach to the project. The team will:

     •     research and develop innovative and efficient, real-time radio frequency interference detection, characterization and flagging signal processing techniques through statistics and theoretical measures,

     •     develop hardware prototyping of new RFI detection and characterization algorithms, and

     •     develop metrics of performance tailored to different astronomical observation cases pertinent to scientific occurrences.

The project will also involve graduate and undergraduate students at WVU.

Natalia Schmid

“Projects will be developed which focus on the design and implementation of new statistical and information theoretical tests for the detection of RFI in radio astronomy data,” Schmid said.

These will become part of the existing “Stochastic Systems Theory” and “Digital Signal Processing for Radio Astronomy” graduate courses, as well as supplement undergraduate classes in “Signals and Systems.”

“The course material will be designed to make this technology more accessible to a wide audience and help train the next generation of scientists and engineers,” Schmid said.

Undergraduate students will participate in the research activities through this project and programs such as the Research Apprenticeship Program and the Summer Undergraduate Research Experience.

This project is jointly funded by the Division of Astronomical Sciences and the Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. The estimated end date is fall 2026.

Algorithms, firmware and software developed will be made available for use to the world radio astronomy community through GitHub, a cloud-based platform utilized through summer RFI workshops at the Green Bank Observatory and disseminated through programs run by the NSF’s SpectrumX Center.

“The success of this work will be measured not only by our development of the proposed algorithms, but by their adoption, successful use and expansion by the broader international astronomical community,” Bandura said.

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