Prominence of ECE Faculty Continues to Grow
By Gabriella McNevin
Boston University Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Mark Horenstein has been named an IEEE Fellow. He is being recognized for contributions to the modeling and measurements of electrostatics in industrial processes. His experimental and theoretical work has focused on some of the more complex electrostatic problems that relate to instrumentation and safety and well as to an understanding of the fundamental theories behind many industrial processes. His work has spanned such broad subjects at the propagating brush discharge, electrostatic phenomena in MEMS devices, modeling of corona discharge, and the electrostatics of parachutes.
The IEEE grade of Fellow is conferred by the IEEE Board of Directors upon a person with an outstanding record of accomplishments in any of the IEEE fields of interest. The total number selected in any one year cannot exceed one-tenth of one-percent of the total voting membership. IEEE Fellow is the highest grade of membership and is recognized by the technical community as a prestigious honor and an important career achievement.
Until 2015, Horenstein served as the Editor-in-Chief for the Journal of Electrostatics for 14 years, and he is an honorary life member of the Electrostatics Society of America (ESA). He was selected to be the Bill Bright Memorial Lecturer for the Institute of Physics’ Electrostatics 2015 conference, where he discussed “The Contribution of Surface Potential to Diverse Problems in Electrostatics.” He was also named International Fellow by the Electrostatics Working Group of the European Federation of Chemical Engineers at their Electrostatics 2013 conference, where he gave an invited lecture on “Future Trends in Industrial Electrostatics. In 2012, he was named Outstanding Professor of the Year by the College of Engineering at Boston University. Horenstein is a named inventor on five patents. He received his Ph.D. degree in Electrical Engineering from MIT in 1978, and his M.S. in Electrical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley in 1975.
In addition to Horenstein’s expertise in electrostatics, he is known for his textbooks on microelectronics and engineering design. He currently works on technology for self-cleaning photovoltaic solar panels and concentrating solar mirrors, and ultra-sensitive electrostatic field sensors
The IEEE is the world’s leading professional association for advancing technology for humanity. Through its 400,000 members in 160 countries, the IEEE is a leading authority on a wide variety of areas ranging from aerospace systems, computers and telecommunications to biomedical engineering, electric power and consumer electronics.
Leading Engineers Visit BU as Part of the ECE Distinguished Lecture Series to Discuss Research with Students and Faculty
By Rebecca Jahnke, COM ’17
BU’s Electrical & Computer Engineering department draws renowned leaders of the field to present as part of the ECE Distinguished Lecture Series. The topics presented are always changing, but consistently span diverse research areas. The Fall 2015 lineup included academics Daniel Fleetwood, Kevin Skadron and Ralph Etienne-Cummings.
Despite Fleetwood, Skadron and Etienne-Cummings’ varying research focuses, the trio has much in common. All are highly decorated IEEE Fellows with many accolades to their names. They hold a collective ten patents between them. Through the groundbreaking publications they’ve authored, the group has effectively written the science today’s students are learning. Work conducted at posts throughout the country – and for some, on sabbatical abroad – further reflects the breadth of their influence.
Fleetwood kicked off this season’s series with a lecture entitled “Moore’s Law and Radiation Effects on Microelectronics” in September. Fleetwood is the Chair of Vanderbilt University’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Computer Science as well as the university’s Olin H. Landreth Professor of Engineering. His lecture examining the effects of Moore’s Law Size and voltage scaling followed his research in nano science and technology as well as risk and reliability. A Fellow of the American Physical Society and an IEEE Fellow, Fleetwood also received the IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society’s Merit Award. Having authored over 380 publications, Fleetwood received ten Outstanding Paper Awards and has his research cited upwards of 7000 times.
The series continued with a lecture by Kevin Skadron, University of Virginia Department of Computer Science Chair and Harry Douglas Forsyth Professor. His October presentation, “Automata Processing: Massively-Parallel Acceleration for Approximate Pattern Matching,” provided an overview of the AP architecture and observations from accelerating its applications. Skadron cites his research as exploring processor design techniques for managing power, thermal and reliability constraints, all with a focus on manycore and heterogeneous architectures. He has achieved two patents of his own and over 100 peer-reviewed publications and counting since his college summers spent interning for Microsoft and Intel.
Ralph Etienne-Cummings, Professor and Chair of Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, closed out this semester’s series in December. This final presentation – “I, Robot: Blurring the lines between Mind, Body and Robotics” – suggested new approaches to brain-machine interfaces (BMI). Etienne-Cummings’ research interests include systems and algorithms for biologically inspired and low-power processing, biomorphic robots, applied neuroscience, neutral prosthetics and computer integrated surgical systems and technologies. His high level of curiosity has been evident since he was a child and repaired his own short wave radio to listen to a soccer match. Now the holder of seven patents, Etienne-Cummings is known to make time for diversity and mentoring initiatives intended to awaken a similar curiosity in others.
Computer engineer Densmore and team aim to advance synthetic biology
By Michael G Seele
The rapidly growing field of synthetic biology has made long strides in recent years as researchers have modified the genetic makeup of living organisms to get them to behave in different ways — flagging the presence of toxins in the environment, for example. Researchers have done this by breaking down biology into basic building blocks. However, using these building blocks has been increasingly difficult without a clear design methodology and supporting quantitative metrics researchers could use to make decisions.
Associate Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME) would like to take the guess work out of biological design and speed the development of synthetic biology in the process. Working under a new $10 million National Science Foundation “Expeditions in
Computing” grant, Densmore will lead the Living Computing Project, a comprehensive effort to quantify synthetic biology, using a computing engineering approach to create a toolbox of carefully measured and catalogued biological parts that can be used to engineer organisms with predictable results. These parts will allow the entire field to understand better what computing principles can be applied repeatedly and reliably to synthetic biology.
Densmore and assistant professors Ahmad Khalil (BME) and Wilson Wong (BME), and Research Assistant Professor Swapnil Bhatia (ECE) will take the lead on the project, partnering with colleagues at MIT and Lincoln Laboratory over the course of the five-year grant. The award marks the first time explicitly exploring computing principles in multiple living organisms and openly archiving the results has been funded.
“This puts a stake in the ground to make synthetic biology more rigorous,” Densmore said. “We want to build a foundation that’s well understood, built to use software tools, and that can serve as an open-source starting place for many advanced applications.”
Synthetic biologists take snippets of DNA and combine them in novel ways to produce defined behavioral characteristics in organisms. For instance, Densmore envisions a day when one might engineer a cell to change state when it detects cancer. The cell could be introduced into a patient, retrieved after a time and read like the memory of a computer, enabling detection of disease much earlier and less invasively than is now possible. Engineering that cell could be far easier and faster if researchers had a detailed inventory of parts and corresponding software tools they could use to create it.
Densmore is a core member of — and the only computer engineer in — BU’s new Biological Design Center. He has long been applying the kinds of tools used in computer engineering to synthetic biology. His software aims to identify and characterize biological parts — segments of DNA — and assemble them into complex biological systems. The NSF Expeditions in Computing grant will allow for expansion of that effort, but there are significant challenges in applying computer engineering principles to natural systems.
“What is power consumption in biology?” Densmore cites as an example. “What are the metrics in biology that make sense, can be repeated, and are reliable? You can’t make decisions in engineering without metrics and quantifiable information.”
“Programming a flower to change color, a cell to repair damaged tissue, or a mosquito to defeat malaria, is likely to require a different computational model than programming an app for your laptop,” said Bhatia. “Discovering this new type of computational thinking in partnership with synthetic biologists is what I am most excited about.”
Densmore hopes this project will take synthetic biology from an artisanal endeavor to a true engineering discipline with a solid, quantified foundation.
“Computation is important for moving any field forward and that’s what we’re trying to do with synthetic biology,” Densmore said. “We’re trying to build a library based on computing principles for the whole community, an open-source repository of biological pieces that use those principles reliably, repeatedly, and with broad applicability.”
“The Expeditions in Computing program enables the computing research community to pursue complex problems by supporting large project teams over a longer period of time,” said Jim Kurose, NSF’s head for Computer and Information Science and Engineering. “This allows these researchers to pursue bold, ambitious research that moves the needle for not only computer science disciplines, but often many other disciplines as well.”
ECE Professor’s LED Discovery at Heart of Case
By Joel Brown, published in BU Today
A US District Court jury has awarded Boston University more than $13 million after finding that three companies infringed on a BU patent for blue LEDs (light emitting diodes), used in countless cell phones, tablets, laptops, and lighting products.
After a highly technical three-week trial in November, the 10-person jury unanimously found that the companies had willfully infringed on BU’s patent for the invention by 2013 Innovator of the Year Theodore Moustakas, College of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Photonics and Optoelectronics Emeritus. Because the jury found the infringement to be willful, the $13,665,000 award could be doubled or tripled by Judge Patti B. Saris. No date has yet been announced for further proceedings.
Despite the amount of damages awarded, “the best part of this is that it validates Professor Moustakas’ work,” says Michael Pratt (Questrom’12), interim managing director of BU’s Technology Development office. “The story is really not about the money. The first thing we want is recognition of his seminal contribution to this field.”
Moustakas, who became a professor emeritus when he retired in June but continues to conduct research at the Photonics Center, testified extensively at the trial and was present in court every day. When the judge read the jury’s verdict, “I put my head down,” he says. “I cried.” He describes the jury’s decision as “amazing…everything we asked,” saying also that his lifetime’s work was being challenged.
“Fundamental to our mission as a global research institution is nurturing an environment of discovery that supports our faculty and the incredibly important work they do,” says Jean Morrison, provost and chief academic officer. “We are delighted with the verdict in this case. Boston University has successfully fought, and will continue to fight, for our faculty members and the intellectual property they create here.”
The three primary defendants, all Taiwan-based, were Epistar Corporation, Everlight Electronics Co., Ltd., and Lite-On Technology Corporation, along with various subsidiaries, most located in the United States. Each is involved in manufacturing or packaging LEDs for use in consumer electronics. A number of big-name electronics manufacturers were initially part of the University’s case, but they avoided litigation by joining a settlement that includes licensing and confidentiality agreements.
The University was represented by Michael Shore, a partner at Shore Chan DePumpo LLP, in Dallas, specialists in intellectual property cases, and Erik Belt, a partner specializing in patent disputes at the Boston law firm McCarter and English LLC, which has represented BU before. While it is possible for the defendants to appeal the verdict, Belt says it would be difficult to overturn the jury’s clear finding of fact.
The University will receive less than half of the final award, after the attorneys, who took the case on a contingency basis, and previous patent licensees are paid. Moustakas will receive 30 percent of the University’s share.
Moustakas joined BU in 1987 and was named the University’s inaugural Distinguished Professor of Photonics and Optoelectronics in 2014. A search is under way for his successor, and the Distinguished Professorship will be renamed the Theodore Moustakas Professorship of Photonics and Optoelectronics.
Moustakas’ invention dates to June 22, 1990, when researchers in his lab were trying to produce microscopically thin layers of gallium nitride to be used in the LEDs, growing crystals of the substance at high temperatures. They discovered that a heater used in the experiment had malfunctioned and the material had cooled to 270 degrees Celsius, far below the intended 600 degrees. But instead of aborting the experiment, Moustakas told them to fix the heater and continue. The snafu led to the growth of a smoother, more translucent gallium nitride layer that also grew much faster when crystallized at the higher temperature, a result replicated—deliberately—the very next day.
The main patent for the LED was issued in 1997, based on an application first submitted in 1991. Since then, blue LEDs have become a key component in many products, because they can generate white light when coated with phosphor.
“The real story is the robustness of Moustakas’ technology,” says Pratt. “It really did become a personal story. There was an attack, an affront to his creation. They had two experts saying it didn’t exist…and the jury wasn’t buying that at all.”
“To infringe in patent law, you don’t have to know about the patent and you don’t have to have an intent,” says Belt. To prove willfulness, “you basically have to show the other side knew of the patent and they were perhaps recklessly disregarding the fact that they were infringing or willfully blind to it. There’s a lot of ways to say it, but you basically have to show that there was willful disregard for BU’s patent rights.
“I think this really validates Professor Moustakas’ scientific breakthrough and establishes him as one of the great scientists in his field,” Belt says.
Giles has recently accepted key roles aimed at progressing the field of astronomy and of supercomputing; all while, continuing his role as a STEM diversity advocate.
By Gabriella McNevin and Rebecca Jahnke (COM ‘17)
Roscoe Giles is a Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Boston University (BU). Within the last few months, Giles has become involved with a $864-million cooperative agreement to manage the National Radio Astronomy Observatory (NRAO). He has also accepted an invitation to aid in the development of U.S. supercomputing policies.
In October, 2015, Giles started a two-year term as Chair of the Associated Universities, Inc. (AUI) Board of Trustees. The following month, NSF approved the largest cooperative agreement the astronomy division has ever granted. A 10-year, $864-million cooperative contract with AUI to manage the NRAO. This record breaking contract will tie AUI leadership to the core goals of astronomical research embraced by NRAO.
Also in October, Giles was invited to the White House’s National Strategic Computing Initiative (NCSI) Workshop. NCSI was established by President Obama’s executive order to ensure the United States continues its role as a supercomputing pioneer in the coming decades. The workshop sought to jumpstart ideas for a cohesive, multi-agency strategy. While at the workshop, he and other industry, academic, and government leaders discussed the challenges and opportunities associated with the increase in computing demands and the heightened role of big data in the ever-evolving technological landscape.
Giles is no stranger to government policy. Having served as Chairman of the United States Department of Energy’s Advanced Scientific Computing Advisory Committee from 2008 to 2015, Giles directly influenced the management and direction of federal scientific computing programs.
Giles’ expansive research interests provide a broad foundation to draw upon. Giles started his education studying physics. He obtained his Bachelor’s of Arts degree with honors from the University of Chicago and received Master’s of Science and Ph.D. degrees from Stanford University.
Giles shifted his focus to electrical and computer engineering upon joining Boston University in 1985. Giles is focused on advanced computer architectures, distributed and parallel computing and computation science.
On LinkedIn, Roscoe Giles describes himself simply as an optimist intent to push “the envelope of computing and science in the large.”
Giles is well acquainted with national initiatives to increase diversity in STEM fields. Giles is listed by the Career Communications Group as one of the “50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science,” and was the first African American to earn a theoretical physics PH.D. from Stanford. Additionally, Giles was the first ever African American conference chairman of the Supercomputing Conference, which took place in Baltimore, Maryland in 2002
To that effect, Giles has been lauded not just for his research, but also for his community outreach. Giles was a Founder and Executive Director for the Institute of African American E-Culture. The foundation worked to open access to information technology to minorities and disadvantaged communities across the country. Giles won the Computing Research Association (CRA) A. Nico Habermann Award for his service as a faculty adviser and Minority Engineers Society Mentor.
At the Boston University Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Giles has received recognition including Scholar-Teacher of the Year in 1992. In 1996, Giles won Boston University’s College of Engineering Award for Excellence in Teaching.
By Rebecca Jahnke (COM ’17)
ECE PhD student Onur Sahin won first prize this November at the Association for Computing Machinery’s (ACM) Special Interest Group on Design Automation (SIGDA) Student Research Competition. Sahin, who is advised by ECE Professor Ayse Coskun, won for his project on providing sustainable performance to mobile device users, titled “Pushing QoS-Awareness into Thermal Management for Sustainable User Experience in Mobile Devices”
Sahin soared through the competition’s multiple rounds at the International Conference on Computer Aided Design (ICCAD) in Austin. Contestants had entered by submitting a write-up describing their research focuses, the novel aspects of their approaches and the impact their projects could have on society. Sahin was among the 20 entrants invited to the poster presentation at the ICCAD, and the five subsequently selected by industry and academic judges to proceed. Those five delivered 10-minute presentations before a judging panel, where they were assessed for their knowledge of their areas, contributions of their research and the quality of their presentations. Judges named Sahin winner following this round.
Sahin’s project idea is a response to modern mobile devices that have significantly increased computational abilities, but generate significant amounts of heat and power dissipation. Unlike other computation devices, mobile devices’ limited battery-life and small size limit their cooling capabilities. This poses a problem for the many users who run computationally intensive applications – like gaming, browsing, media and data processing – for extended durations.
Currently, mobile devices employ a thermal throttling mechanism to slow the devices and reduce their temperatures. However, this reduces performance levels and degrades the user experience.
Sahin’s project addresses the drawbacks of current thermal throttling techniques to mitigate thermal limitations on smartphones. By instituting techniques that prevent an application from boosting performance beyond what is actually required to run that application, Sahin proposes that heating can be slowed. This will allow users to interact with their devices for longer at higher performance levels. Having experimented with real-life smartphones, Sahin and his team reassure that their technology can be easily integrated into current mobile devices.
This competition is one of the several student research competitions annually co-located with ACM sponsored conferences. Each conference focuses on a different major area of computing. The competition is sponsored by Microsoft Research and allows undergraduate and graduate students across computing disciplines to gain visibility for their research projects and finesse their abilities to effectively communicate their ideas.
Sahin will join winners from all conferences to compete in the ACM Grand Final against researchers from all computing areas. From there, the top three contenders and their advisors will receive formal recognition at the ACM Awards Banquet, where the Turing Award – the highest distinction in computer science – is presented annually.
Further information regarding the competition and the winners are provided at http://src.acm.org/winners.html.
By Rebecca Jahnke (COM ‘17) and Bhumika Salwan (Questrom ’16)
Boston University hosted over 300 attendees November 12-15th at the Metcalf Trustee Center for the Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS) SpaceVision 2015 Conference. The conference is entirely student-run and space-centric. It bills itself as connecting present with future space leaders and is part of international nonprofit SEDS’ larger mission to empower students through the high school, undergraduate and graduate levels to impact space exploration.
BU Engineering seniors Mehmet Akbulut (ME ‘16) and Dean De Carli (EE ‘16) spearheaded conference planning. Both Akbulut and De Carli, who served as the Chair of Operations and Chair of Programming, respectively, had attended the 2013 Arizona SpaceVision Conference. After pondering why the conference had yet to be hosted in a major city like Boston, the pair submitted a bid to post the conference at Boston University and successfully secured the 2015 venue nomination.
Akbulut oversaw logistics, registration, personnel, and general operations of the event while De Carli took charge of programming and speakers. Together, they developed an agenda that featured industry speakers, panels, a business plan competition, and a first-ever peer mentor session. By bringing students together with leaders in the aerospace community, the conference offered attendees invaluable networking opportunities and the chance to view the future of space development through an interdisciplinary lens.
The SEDS, SpaceVision, Rocket Propulsion, and small satellite efforts at BU are all truly interdisciplinary and interdepartmental. This creates a forum for students in different concentrations to work as a team and further learning in fields such as space research. Both Akbulut and De Carli attribute their success running SpaceVision 2015 to the education and leadership opportunities they’ve had in the College of Engineering and Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE).
“ECE has prepared me to help with SpaceVision by giving me the opportunity to lead in student groups such as Boston University Rocket Proposal Group. It’s given me the leadership skills that I have been able to translate into a much larger scale such as being Chair of this conference,” De Carli said.
The College of Engineering, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, Department of Mechanical Engineering and Center for Space Physics jointly sponsored the conference. Outside sponsors included Arizona State University School of Earth and Science Exploration and industry sponsors like Lockheed Martin.
MOC successfully rallies academia, government and industry in developing new cloud.
By Rebecca Jahnke (COM ’17)
The Massachusetts Open Cloud (MOC) project – led by ECE Professor Orran Krieger – just announced a set of core industry partners, spanning key hardware, software and services industry sectors. The MOC is an ambitious project that aims to create a public cloud, based on a revolutionary model for a multi-provider Open Cloud eXchange (OCX).
In existing public clouds one provider operates the entire cloud. In contrast, the OCX model underlying the MOC allows for multiple entities to provide computing resources and services in a level playing field. Having multiple providers – all with their own specialties – participating in the same cloud will enable a broader range of users and applications to be supported.
The core corporate partners of the MOC – Brocade, Cisco, Intel, Lenovo, Red Hat and Two Sigma – have made financial commitments as well as in-kind commitments, ranging from computer infrastructure in support of MOC deployment and operation, to engineering expertise to support the development of OCX functionality. The companies have also pledged executive sponsors to keep company and project goals aligned and to support MOC’s development. These new partnerships underscore the strong and growing industry support for the project, which has already secured in excess of $14 million of funding – more than quadruple the $3 million in seed funding that the MOC received from the Mass Tech Collaborative in 2014.
Incubated at and seed-funded by the Hariri Institute for Computing at BU (as part of the Cloud Computing Initiative led by its Director, Orran Krieger), this complex project has benefitted from strong BU institutional and administrative support, including the offices of the Provost, Corporate Relations, General Council, and IS&T Research Computing. Anchored at BU, the project is a collaboration that also involves Harvard University, MIT, UMass, and Northeastern University, as well as the Massachusetts Green High-Performance Computing Center (MGHPCC). The project leverages and builds on current and prior research by a number of ECE and CS faculty members at BU including Jonathan Appavoo, Azer Bestavros, Ran Canetti, Ayse Coskun, and Orran Krieger.
ECE Assistant Prof is Rising Star in Machine Learning
By Michael S. Goldberg
To Brian Kulis, advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence bring with them the opportunity to mesh theory with real-world applications, like driverless cars and computers that can describe aloud the objects in front of them.
“You want computers to be able to recognize what they are seeing in images and video,” says Kulis, a College of Engineering assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. “For instance, can it recognize all the objects in a picture? Or a more difficult problem would be, can it look at a video and describe in English what is happening in the video? That is a major application area for machine learning these days.”
Kulis’ expertise in machine learning, along with his research in computer vision systems and other applications, brought him to BU this fall and has earned him the University’s inaugural Peter J. Levine Career Development Professorship, which will be awarded annually to rising junior faculty in the electrical and computer engineering department. The professorship’s three-year stipend will support scholarly and laboratory work. It was established by a gift from Peter J. Levine (ENG’83), a partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Andreesen Horowitz and a part-time faculty member at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business.
Kulis is a rising star in the machine learning field and the Levine professorship speaks to BU’s recognition of his achievements thus far, says Kenneth R. Lutchen, dean of ENG, and is a commitment to helping Kulis build on his world-class research and teaching.
Lutchen adds that Kulis, who earlier this year also received a National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for research into machine learning systems, will be a critical faculty member of ENG’s new master’s degree specialization in data analytics.
“We think it will be one of the most popular specializations we have, and it will be accessible not just to students in this department, but also to biomedical, mechanical engineering, and systems engineering students who will want to have this same specialization. Brian’s expertise is perfectly aligned with teaching this,” Lutchen says.
Also a College of Arts & Sciences assistant professor of computer science, Kulis earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science and mathematics at Cornell University and a doctorate in computer science at the University of Texas at Austin. He did postdoctoral work at the University of California, Berkeley, then spent three years on the faculty of Ohio State University before coming to BU.
Millions or billions of data points
Data science is about managing huge data sets—think millions or billions of data points, from an array of sources—and programming computers to analyze the data and make predictions based on identified patterns. Advances in storing and analyzing these growing collections of information has made Big Data a hot field in both academia and industry, with Harvard Business Review pronouncing data scientist “the sexiest job of the 21st century.”
Those advances include artificial intelligence and machine learning, and they are what enable Kulis to develop exciting connections between theory and action. “There is a nice combination between the mathematics and the theoretical aspects of machine learning. It’s a very applied field, trying to solve real problems,” he says. “That balance is pretty rare.”
He describes his specific area of research as scalable nonparametric machine learning. While a traditional statistical model for analyzing a large amount of data would establish a model for performing the analysis, Kulis pursues a different method. In his research, the data itself determines how simple or complicated the analysis should be.
An example of this approach, he says, is analyzing a large collection of documents for the content they contain. A parametric model would establish 10 clusters of documents to analyze, one each on a set topic. A nonparametric model would instead analyze all of the documents and determine how many topics should be included in the analysis. “You want the data itself to guide the discovery process, and so if there is a lot to say, then you want your algorithm to reveal that structure,” he says. “It’s a more flexible way to do analysis.”
The field is ripe for approaches that allow researchers from different fields–biology and business, for example–to apply machine learning techniques to develop new ways of looking at the data they collect. Kulis says he is looking forward to working with faculty and students from different BU departments both in research and in his courses. “Machine learning brings together a lot of fields that for a long time have been fairly disjoined. When it comes to teaching, a lot of my excitement is in trying to bridge these different disciplines and to teach courses that bring together people from different areas,” he says.
The curriculum, Lutchen says, has relevance to the world at large: “As an engineering faculty, we want people to understand how these new tools and techniques can help society.”
Michael S. Goldberg can be reached at email@example.com.
Wireless Sensors Developed by Interdisciplinary Engineering Team to be Launched into Space
By Rich Barlow Video by Joe Chan for BU Today
On March 10, 1989, a solar eruption blasted plasma toward Earth. Canadian utility Hydro-Quebec noticed a hop-skip-and-jump in the voltage on its grid two days later. On March 13, with plasma sweeping Earth’s magnetic field and causing electric currents in the outer atmosphere, the grid shut down, plunging the province into darkness for nine hours.
Such bolts from the blue (or black) of space rarely wreak such havoc. But less severe irritants—interrupted radio transmissions, disrupted GPS devices, even rusting of pipelines—can result when electric currents course through the magnetic field, says Joshua Semeter, who’d like to know more about this phenomenon (largely because the magnetic field may be an essential ingredient for life on Earth). So would the federal government, which is why NASA has agreed to launch a network of wireless sensors named ANDESITE, developed by Semeter’s College of Engineering students to study changes in Earth’s magnetic field caused by space weather.
It is the final frontier, finally crossed: the first space launch for eight-year-old BU Student-satellite for Applications and Training, overseen by Semeter (ENG’92,’97), an ENG professor of electrical and computer engineering. Colloquially known as BUSAT, the program engages students in designing and operating small satellites. Earlier this year, the BUSAT group was one of the teams from a half dozen universities that beat out nine competitors to continue receiving support from the Air Force, which has contributed more than $500,000 to BUSAT projects. (BU also provided funding.) NASA will set a date for the launch late this year, Semeter says, assuming the agency’s review shows that ANDESITE’s ejecting sensors “won’t blow up their vehicle.”
ANDESITE sensors are DVD-sized boxes packed with electronics boards, and eight of them will hitch a ride on a NASA spacecraft that will spit them out roughly 280 miles above the Earth. Each sensor, traveling at a speed of approximately six miles per second, will complete an orbit of the Earth in roughly 90 minutes. The sensors will measure variations in electrical currents flowing in and out of the upper atmosphere along Earth’s magnetic field. “From this we will learn about how turbulence forms in space plasmas and what the eventual effects of this will be” on things like radio signals, allowing for better modeling of those effects, Semeter says.
ANDESITE’s success has already led to one terrestrial development, he adds. ENG has hired Brian Walsh (GRS’09,’12) as an associate professor of mechanical engineering. Walsh researches small satellites and space technology.
“This whole idea of taking any kind of spacecraft and spitting out small sub-payloads is really experimental,” says Semeter.
“This whole idea of taking any kind of spacecraft and spitting out small sub-payloads is really experimental,” says Semeter, although ANDESITE employs “technology that’s very well established here on Earth. They use it for self-driving cars and finding cabs in a city; Uber uses this kind of thing. This is wireless mesh network technology.…Our innovation was, why can’t we use that in space? What science could you do?”
In July, government representatives visited the students’ lab at the Engineering Product Innovation Center for a demonstration of how the sensors would deploy during an upcoming zero-gravity test flight, a nausea-inducing trial that previous BUSAT students have experienced firsthand. The students rigged a contraption to gently fire sensors into a mesh net, a form of soccer-meets-space.
“Looks like a good setup,” Zane Singleton of the Defense Department’s Space Test Program and tech company MEI Technologies said at the demonstration.
Earlier in the history of miniaturized satellites, “NASA didn’t give a rat’s ass” about them, Semeter says, with one official harrumphing, “Why would somebody who drives a Ferrari care about Matchboxes?” Then the National Science Foundation convinced NASA that solid science research could be done by mini-satellites. Today, ANDESITE is but one government effort to study space weather. Last February, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite was launched to record data about solar wind.
Cody Nabong (ENG’15), ANDESITE’s project manager, joined BUSAT on a buddy’s recommendation after being stymied in his search for an internship. (A picture of his friend on a zero-gravity flight was a grabber.) “I’ve been interested in aerospace since I came here, so it wasn’t a hard decision,” says Nabong, who appreciates the hands-on practice of the classroom concepts he’s studied that the team has provided. “The computer program that you use to make your 3-D models—I got a lot of practice with that. And then I learned a bunch about communications stuff that I wouldn’t have been exposed to if I had just had courses.…The biggest thing I’ve learned is how you meet requirements for an engineering project,” he says, referring to the government competitions and reviews the ANDESITE project has hurdled.
If the foregoing sounds uber-Star Trek-y, BUSAT’s members include some liberal arts disciplines majors who came for graduate engineering study through BU’s LEAP (Late Entry Accelerated Program) initiative. One BUSAT alumnus was a building contractor from San Francisco, who was “perfectly suited for this job,” says Semeter. “He’s used to going to the project site, telling people what to do. That’s all we needed. And he was technically competent.”