Three engineering professors at the University of Rhode Island have been awarded an $850,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to begin to develop the sensors and computer architecture for future “smart cities.” The system will incorporate a hierarchical layering of computer nodes for decision-making that is inspired by fundamental elements of the human nervous system.
According to Tao Wei, URI assistant professor of electrical engineering, the smart city concept is one in which all municipal infrastructure, including power grids, communication networks, water and wastewater systems, public transportation, health care and security, are linked by a computer architecture and sensor system for real-time monitoring and evaluation for response.
“We want to come up with the computer architecture that can manage to collect all of this data from all the individual components and use it for diagnostics applications,” said Wei, who is collaborating on the project with URI engineering professors Qing Yang and Haibo He. “If there were a fire somewhere, the system would immediately point out where it is and quickly evaluate its severity to determine how best to respond.”
The researchers call their project a reflex tree, borrowing from a concept from the human nervous system in which neuromuscular reactions and instinctive motions respond to urgent situations without requiring the direct intervention of the brain.
“When we touch something hot, we immediately pull our hand back without thinking about it,” explained Wei. “We have a controlled feedback loop in our arm, so we don’t necessarily have to use our brain in that situation. We would cause more damage if we waited for the signal to reach our brain and for our brain to tell us what to do.”
In a smart city, Wei envisions thousands of sensors or nodes throughout the city that report data to the next highest layer to respond to events.
“The nodes can talk with each other and decide whether it is a huge event that needs to be reported to the upper level nodes or whether they can respond without further assistance,” he said. “At the top of the structure is a supercomputer or cloud computer that can handle a huge amount of data. The beauty of the system is that we don’t necessarily have to bother the brain every time.”
According to a report by consultants Frost and Sullivan, the market for the development of smart cities is anticipated to reach $3.7 trillion by 2020. The first step, according to Wei, is to build a prototype, which the URI professors have already begun.
Wei has constructed a prototype of a municipal gas pipeline system in his URI laboratory with a fiber-optic network of thousands of sensors he created to collect data about the status of the pipeline. Associate Professor Haibo He is devising an artificial intelligence system for processing the data and decision making, while Professor Qing Yang is building the computer architecture, focusing primarily on the supercomputer at the top layer where the most complex tasks are performed.
“Right now we’re working on a four-layer system, but in the future it will have to have many more layers than that,” Wei said.
At the end of the four-year grant, Wei and his colleagues expect to have a working prototype that will be able to process data and respond to a variety of disturbances. Then they will apply the system to existing infrastructure, perhaps starting with just one building.
If you want to ensure medicine is genuine or that Louis Vuitton handbag is real, two University of Rhode Island engineering professors have a low-cost solution.
Professors Tao Wei and Yan “Lindsay” Sun believe that strands of fiber optic cables smaller than a human hair could replace easy-to-forge documents, barcodes and RFID tags.
The cables – typically deployed to ferry data around the Internet – are composed of billions of strands of fiber, in turn made from billions more particles of glass. When light shines through the strands, each creates a different reflection pattern. Considered interference in the communications field, Wei and Sun realized this “interference” could hold a valuable purpose.
“The idea is this is super small, stable and cheap, and super secure because you cannot reproduce it,” Sun says.
A strand of fiber weighs less than a feather, costs fractions of a penny and easily attaches to the outside of a document or embeds in a luxury product. A scanner would record the strand’s pattern before the document or product was released. On the receiving end, a scanner would check for the same pattern.
And don’t worry; the researchers know how to secure the scanner as well. They’d simply attach a fiber optic strand to the scanner itself. An invalid pattern would indicate someone tampered with the scanner.
“At the molecular level there are small imperfections that are very random and unpredictable,” Wei says. “Even if you use the same instrument to fabricate two pieces of fiber, they will have dramatically different identities.”
The professors realized the power of that fact after sharing lunch. Wei, who doesn’t typically research security, started chatting about his work in fiber optic cables and mentioned that no two are alike. Sun, who studies security, was fascinated. When Wei later told her that the unique reflection patterns could be measured, Sun got to work applying the quirk of nature to security.
In just a few months, the two created a working prototype and penned a research paper. Now they want to slim down the scanner and refine the process.
“This is a really unique technology,” Wei says. “There are tons of applications just waiting to be discovered.”]]>
The program aims to break down stereotypes and foster friendly relations. The students will live in residence halls on the Kingston campus, take field trips, participate in social activities and engage in educational activities. Industrial and systems engineering Professor Manbir Sodhi will lead the project along with chemical engineering Associate Professor Mercedes Rivero-Hudec.
The project grew out of the Summer Engineering Academy, organized by Sodhi. With the academy attracting many foreign students, Sodhi pitched a program focused on Pakistani-Indian-American relations. He’ll recruit students from India and Pakistan through his extensive professional and personal network while American students will come from the pre-engineering programs from Providence public schools.
“We’re excited to welcome these students to URI,” Sodhi says. “The program perfectly fits the University’s mission of fostering an international community of scholars.”]]>
The junior from Ancaster, Ontario, is silencing the critics who said he could never balance an intense engineering degree while playing Division I soccer.
“I actually like it during the season,” Camillo, 20, says. “Soccer provides a structure and I know I have to get my schoolwork done before practice.”
Camillo’s love has always been soccer. Charging down the field, making a comeback that no one thought possible or going to the A-10 conference finals as the team did last year offers an amazing thrill. But Camillo has found engineering lets him tap into another passion – one to explore, question and create.
Growing up in Canada – where he moved at age 4 from New York – Camillo always wanted to know how stuff worked. He questioned everything and, in high school, discovered a love of math and physics. When he reached college, friends told him to find an easy major and focus exclusively on soccer. Camillo, who attended the University of Memphis before transferring to URI in fall 2013, wholeheartedly ignored that advice and became the only engineering major on the men’s soccer team.
“I’m not going to be a soccer player my entire life and engineering is something I enjoy,” he says. “I’d rather put in a few years of hard work and enjoy my future job than enroll in a major I don’t like.”
At URI, Camillo found a lot to like about his engineering major. The curriculum offers students the opportunity to study a broad array of topics and dig into why things work (or don’t). Camillo credits professors with bringing topics to life and Professor Donna Meyer with making fluid mechanics – typically a dry field despite its name – exciting. That branch of engineering has so appealed to Camillo that he’s thinking about pursuing it further by going to graduate school.
“I want to see and work in the real world,” Camillo says. “But when I do, I want to be really well educated.”
So does he think URI will offer him that by the time he graduates?
“Yes,” he says. “It’s awesome here.”]]>
John Paquet III
*Not all names appear due to student privacy settings.
A wristwatch, a phone and the cloud will revolutionize how we monitor and treat chronic health conditions says one University of Rhode Island engineering researcher.
Biomedical engineering Assistant Professor Kunal Mankodiya and his students are developing software that allows a smartphone to monitor a patient’s vital signs. The phone sends the data over the Internet to a server in the cloud for analysis, which feeds the results to a doctor. What previously required a doctor’s visit will now occur 24/7 anywhere thanks to the phone’s built-in sensors that monitor pulse, movement, etc.
Armed with the data, doctors can adjust medication or program a computer to automatically inform the patient to change dosage based on the information sent from the smartwatch. The concept brings the “Internet of Things” – the concept of connecting all things to the Internet – to wearable devices, in this case a watch.
“We’re excited about the potential but it is not easy to design such a wearable system,” Mankodiya says. “It goes into a dynamic environment because the body is always moving. However, as biomedical engineers we understand what physicians need and how the technology can help.”
To solve the problem, Mankodiya and two undergraduate students are creating algorithms for commercially available smartwatches running the Android operating system. By relying on readily available watches, the team keeps costs low and puts its focus on the intelligent algorithms designed for the health field.
At the forefront of the code stands junior biomedical engineering student Cody Goldberg, 20, of Amherst, N.H. He’s never taken a programming class, but with research he coded the software to turn the watch’s monitoring components into a stream of data.
“It’s a lot of fun developing wearable technologies for health care,” he says. “I’m teaching myself stuff I wouldn’t learn otherwise.”
Both Goldberg and his professor jumped into the project for personal reasons. Goldberg’s brother suffers from epilepsy. Goldberg hopes his system will predict a seizure and provide his brother time to react – such as safely stopping a car he’s driving.
Mankodiya started thinking about pairing wearable devices and health monitoring after his father suffered a heart attack in India. Then in Germany, Mankodiya developed wearable health devices to monitor health signs from afar to improve diagnosis and interventions.
“We know people around us who suffer from diseases that require continuous clinical care,” Mankodiya says.
He pursued the concept of a “wearable Internet of Things” during graduate school and as a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. He collaborated with the University of Pittsburg Neurological Center to start work on SPARK – the Smart Phone and Watch for Parkinson’s disease patients. The system uses the watch to monitor tremors in patients to measure the disease’s progress and intensity.
When Mankodiya arrived at URI in July 2014, he scaled up the work. Besides Goldberg, he brought in Trevor Bernier, a senior biomedical engineering student from Taunton, Mass.
Bernier, 22, is working on wearable optical sensors that monitor brain activity. By pairing them with related sensors under development by URI biomedical engineering Associate Professor Walt Besio, doctors gain a complete and real-time view of patients’ brain activity. The individual systems have already undergone human testing and now the group hopes to bring them together.
“It’s a very hands-on project allowing me to learn engineering skills demanded in the marketplace,” Bernier says. “I also know people who we can help and who will benefit. That’s greatly rewarding.”]]>
Bionic legs and torpedoes would appear to hold little in common. However, Robert Hernandez applies lessons he learned designing prosthetic legs at the University of Rhode Island to America’s next generation of underwater weapons systems.
Hernandez, who holds a master’s (’10) and doctorate (’14) in electrical engineering from URI, spent his academic career studying computer hardware and algorithms that interface between a human nervous system and a prosthetic leg. He took that information and applied it at his day job as a torpedo systems engineer at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, R.I.
“Once you take the 1,000-foot view instead of the 10-foot view, you see how selection criteria for a computer architecture are not necessarily determined by the system, but instead by guidelines developed to compare the architectures against one another,” says Hernandez, who lives in Middletown, R.I.
The signal processing performed by URI’s neural-machine-interface is similar to many naval systems. The underlying concept is the same – take in lots of raw data, pre-process it then use classifications techniques to make a decision, whether it’s how far to move a prosthetic leg or the targeting of a weapon. Hernandez and URI researchers created guidelines that outline what computer hardware and algorithms work best given different goals.
For the Navy, Hernandez spearheads one or two naval projects while providing a hand to projects that run into issues. His Ph.D. is allowing him to take a research role designing next-generation systems and he often rides on naval vessels to see the systems up close. His research garnered national attention in 2014 when the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers bestowed on him its Hispanic in Technology Government Award, noting his innovative troubleshooting skills.
For his part, Hernandez says he likes a challenge and just getting to the warfare center proved one.
Hernandez grew up in a low-income section of Brooklyn, New York with his mother as the sole provider. Hernandez watched her almost sell their house twice to raise money and saw many neighbors unable to climb the socioeconomic ladder. But his mother encouraged him and he won a scholarship to attend Polytechnic University in Brooklyn in 1988.
Struggling to find a job in New York City, Hernandez applied to the Navy, which offered him an engineering position in Newport. He accepted in 1992 and planned to stay two years. To his surprise, he found a home in the Ocean State and fell in love with his job.
By 2008, he convinced his managers to let him pursue a graduate degree. At the time, URI operated the Center for Excellence for Undersea Technology and it offered the perfect marriage of electrical engineering and ocean technology. He enjoyed school so much he stayed for his Ph.D., ultimately graduating with a 4.0.
Hernandez says his academic career led him to appreciate the first-rate curriculum and dedication of engineering faculty, especially his mentors Jien-Chung Lo and Qing Yang.
He also saw the passion of students and these days helps recruit them to careers at the warfare center. Hernandez says he especially encourages young people who face challenging life situations like those that he experienced.
“Growing up in an inner-city neighborhood, I thought I was destined to be a failure,” he says. “I never expected I would be here. This is amazing. I’m doing something for our country and to protect democracy. I want kids to realize they have the opportunity to be something.”]]>