Ocean researchers like to say we know less about the Earth’s seas than the moon. With less than 5 percent of the world’s oceans explored, big discoveries await. To find them, University of Rhode Island students are learning to build the next generation of autonomous underwater vehicles, or AUVs, used to map seafloors, study ocean movement, locate sunken objects, research sea life and more.
Led by ocean engineering Assistant Professor Stephen Licht, a class of 10 engineering students is getting a unique look at emerging AUV technology. The class partnered with Bluefin Robotics, an AUV manufacturer in Massachusetts, to study and test one of its newest vehicles, the 36-inch long SandShark.
During spring 2015, the URI students will learn about the science of motion underwater, propulsion systems, electronics that control a vehicle’s movement and sensors that monitor systems and the surrounding environment. At the end of the course, they will combine their knowledge and test their theories on a real Bluefin vehicle.
“Being able to build a vehicle and watch it work, that is pretty awesome,” says Rebecca Cressman, an ocean engineering student from Middletown, RI.
The class includes engineering students from ocean, electrical and mechanical engineering collaborating on the AUV. And because Bluefin is developing the vehicle as open source, students can see how every bit of hardware and software operates.
“It’s challenging. There are a lot of different parts that have to fit together perfectly,” says Scott Hara, an ocean engineering student from Norwalk, Conn. “But because it’s a challenge it’s very satisfying when it works well.”
Early in the semester, Bluefin engineers paid a visit to the students to explain how the SandShark works. Licht says it provided students a unique opportunity to peer under the hood and talk to the engineers who designed the vehicle.
Now students are own their own, tinkering with designs and working in teams to improve the AUV. They spend much of their time in a lab in the Narragansett Bay campus. Outfitted thanks to a Champlin Foundations grant, the lab includes a 3-D printer for rapid prototyping, sensors, test systems and tools for constructing components.
In the lab, Licht encourages students from different engineering disciplines to tackle challenges as a team. Electrical engineering student Thomas Hamilton, of Northborough, Mass., appreciates the interdisciplinary spirit.
“Ultimately in the real world, you’re going to end up working in different groups of people with different disciplines so it’s important to get that experience,” he says.
Licht jumped at the opportunity to offer the experience. Before coming to URI, he worked on marine robotic projects for iRobot, the company best known for its autonomous vacuum cleaners. Once at URI he attended a seminar given by Mathieu Kemp, then the director of concept development for Bluefin. When Kemp mentioned the company’s latest project, Licht asked about marrying it with his course.
“I had it on my mind to do something like this for a while,” he says. “I really wanted to give engineering students a chance to understand a vehicle design from soup to nuts, and this was the perfect chance.”]]>
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.”]]>