While Interning at Intel, a BU CE Student Caught Stephen Hawking’s Attention
By Gabriella McNevin and Donald Rock (COM ’17)
The wheelchair and the man are suited for this situation. The man and his chair are connected to devices that transmit information through the Internet to the man’s health care provider. The caretaker is alarmed to see the chair’s abnormal degree of orientation, the acceleration, and the man’s rapid heartbeat. The health care provider jumps into action and rushes to the man’s aid.
Although the story above is fictitious, the technology is not. Anish Shah, a Boston University electrical and computer engineering graduate student, developed the novel technology with a team of Intel interns. For twelve weeks Shah was focused on creating a practical gateway device to improve the wheelchair experience and benefit health care monitoring.
The team linked the wheelchair to the “Internet of Things” by developing technology that attaches to the chair and to the user to collect and send information. The technology monitors fluctuating data and transmits it to a second party by route of an Internet application. The story above illustrates how the technology can be used to help caretakers respond in emergency situations.
Shah and his team started the design thinking process with a 3-4 week research period. The team discovered a huge variation in the needs of wheelchair users due to varying mobility and health restraints of each individual. To answer the range in needs, the team created technology that measured and sent information to Internet applications. The applications were designed for different health and wellbeing needs.
The technology integrated a bio-harness able to track bio data of the wheelchair user. It was programmed to track a range of body measurements like heart rate, skin temperature, and the orientation of whoever sits in the wheelchair. The harness was a tool with a number of applications when it was connected to the Internet. The technology can connect to Internet applications specifically designed to allow health care providers to respond to emergency situations. The technology can also be connected to applications designed to improve how long-term internal vitals were monitored.
Another feature of the gateway device was mechanical data monitoring. Here, the orientation of the chair, rather than the orientation of the user was observed. This capability can be applied to identify mechanical usage patterns and anomalies.
The wheelchair’s battery was also connected to the internet-of-things to answer questions like, “Will the chair battery die tomorrow?” and “is the chair consuming an irregular amount of energy?”
Lastly, a geo-location monitor was enabled to benefit user navigation of urban areas. With this technology, wheelchair users could find wheelchair accessible venues and thus improve their future transportation preparations.
Shah and his team tested the technology during a two-week trial period. They collected data and feedback and found highly positive results.
Stephen Hawking, world-renowned theoretical physicist and user of wheelchairs, publicly lauded the technological advancement. In a video response, Hawking applauded the design for it’s potential to change lives. “Medicine can’t cure me so I rely on technology,” noted Hawking. “It lets me interface with the world. It propels me. It is how I’m speaking to you now. It is necessary for me to live.”
Shah started the Intel internship one year into the Master of Engineering program at Boston University. He arrived at the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering with an interest in embedded systems in 2013, and successfully applied the knowledge to create a device that received press coverage around the world. Now, he is working under Professor Thomas Little in the NSF Smart Lighting Engineering Research Center at Boston University.
The Digital Design Industry & ECE Evolve with New Programing Techniques; Verilog and FPGA
By Gabriella McNevin
Video created by Donald Rock (COM ’17 ) and Paloma Parikh (COM ’15)
Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE) organizes the course around fundamental computer aided design techniques, the hardware description language Verilog, and finally introduces lessons on “synthesizing” the Verilog to a Field Programmable Gate Array (FPGA), which is technology similar to a microprocessor but is programmable at the hardware level.
FPGA technology is important because it gives the engineer an opportunity to reprogram and reconfigure the digital design after manufacturing. By using FPGAs, engineers do not have to fabricate a new chip for every design. This allows for rapid prototyping of designs quickly and at a low cost.
Student projects are evaluated on their success in creating an FPGA design of their choosing for their final project. Teaching assistants like Prashant Vaidyanathan mentor the students and provide help with the design tools. For example, in Spring 2014, four students submitted a digital design video game which performed like an improved version of the game Flappy Bird by allowing multiplayer game mode, and cell phone integration via Bluetooth.
A student rendition of the 1993 game Super Bomberman was submitted in Fall 2012. The game included standard functions of Super Bomberman, including display engine, character movement, and graphics. Additionally, the team programmed multi-screen display modes, an operating scoreboard, and character blocking.
Producing a functioning FPGA prototype provides a student experience that is essential in developing an overall, hands on proficiency with the technology. With the support of Prof. Densmore and ECE resources, students can conclude EC551 with skills that have the potential to jump-start their careers.
By Gabriella McNevin
ECE Day 2014
Senior Capstone Design and Honors Thesis students in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) spent May 5, 2014 showcasing projects that represented the culmination of their education at Boston University.
Each presentation accomplished more than just entertain the audience; it earned its creators their due respect. Topics covered technology like a 3D printer scanner, a remote controlled helicopter, and a Mario Kart video game.
During team 6’s presentation, “Danger Zone” by Kenny Loggins blared through the speakers. The big screen streamed a video of a search and rescue remote controlled car, which the team programmed to patrol a fire hazard site for survivors. (Click the controller to listen to “Danger Zone”).
Earlier in the day, the team that created EPIC/ EpiPen Calls concluded their presentation with a spirited Q&A. A number of people –including team members, the client that requested technological support, and a panel of judges– raised their voice to speak about the real-world application and potential of the invention.
The commercial application that teams intend for their projects were as diverse as the equipment they used. The purpose of the designs ranged from assisting the visually impaired, to improving search and rescue missions, to generating alternative energy harvesting methods.
A panel of ECE alumni judges watched each presentation and asked questions to pick a winner for five of the ECE Day Awards. The judges were well prepared to make the call because each had once walked in the students’ shoes and all are currently executing the engineering skills that they realized during their Senior Capstone Design Course. ECE graduates Peter Galvin, Mikhail Gurevich, Craig Laboda, Ryan Lagoy, George Matthews, Drew Morris, Bradley Rufleth, Dan Ryan and Stephen Snyder served as the 2014 judges. Each missed work –at companies such as General Electric, Microsoft, ByteLite, and Btiometry– to share insight with the graduating class of 2014, and decide the most impressive project.
“Wow,” muttered an impressed audience member after the AutoScan team calmly countered questions posed by judges on the technical depth of the team’s invention. The team’s pothole detection system demonstrated the technical skill that is only achievable by a team of well-matched individuals with different specialties.
The dynamic skill sets within each team is key in assembling the ECE Senior Capstone Design Project teams. Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano (ECE) coordinated 20 well-rounded teams by measuring individual strengths. For example, he placed students that gravitate towards user interface development with those who lean towards sensor analytics or java script programming.
The team members that created AutoScan contributed either their hardware or software know-how to develop the project that won Best ECE Senior Design Project Award, 2014. The team was also nominated to show a poster of their project at the national Capstone Design Conference in Columbus, Ohio. The mission of the Capstone Design Conference in Columbus is to improve design-based courses around the country. On June 2nd, Professor Pisano and team members Vinny DeGenova, Stuart Minshull, Nandheesh Prasad, Austen Schmidt, and Charlie Vincent flew to Ohio for the two-day event. Professor Pisano led a workshop on assembling strong design teams.
A significant feature of the Senior Design Capstone project is the team client. Each team is paired with a client. The client (who is either a professor or actively working) requests software and/or hardware for a particular problem that will improve a societal issue.
The principle of a school in Boston that specializes in mentally and physically disabled student academics posed a task for one ECE senior design team. Carter School Principal Marianne Kopaczynski requested a learning tool that would impart fundamental communication and cognitive skills to students. The students created a user-friendly devise called the Automated Announcement System that generates announcements based on each student’s location. Principle Kopaczynski plans to install the system in the school to support location-based feedback learning.
|Best ECE Senior Design Project Award||AutoScan|
|Entrepreneurial Award||Cloud 3D Scanner|
|Design Excellence Award||Cement Impedance Analyzer|
|Design Excellence Award||dDOSI Spectrum Analysis Unit (dSAU)|
|Michael F. Ruane Award for Excellence in Senior Capstone Design||Samuel Howes|
|Senior Honors Thesis Award||Julie Frish, “Development of Low Loss Waveguides for Mid-Infrared Integrated Photonic Circuits”|
|Center for Space Physics Undergraduate Research Award||Andrew Kelley|
|Teacher of the Year||Ajay Joshi|
|Graduate Teaching Fellow of the Year/Teaching Assistant of the Year||Lake Bu|
By Gabriella McNevin
Kelley found his passion while working with the BU Satellite Program & Rocket Group
By Gabriella McNevin
Andrew Kelley (ENG ’14) won The Center for Space Physics Undergraduate Research Award for his contribution to the BU Satellite Program and the Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group. The award recipient was decided by the Director of the BU Center of Space Physics, Professor John Clarke (AS); and Associate Director of the BU Center for Space Physics, Professor Joshua Semeter (ECE).
Kelley’s success was achieved in a relatively short period of time. Kelley entered BU excited to gain a versatile education in computer engineering in an accelerated 3-year program. For his first two years, like many, Kelley was unsure of his passion and did not know what career would best unite his academic skills and interests. He explored the possibilities by researching extracurricular activities that involved computer engineering. Ultimately, Kelley joined his first space program venture after his freshman year, and realized his passion in the field after his second year. It was not until his third and final year at Boston University, that Kelley dove, head-first, into space programs.
A future that blended computer engineering and space programs was first proposed to Kelley at Splash Day his freshmen year. Splash Day is an annual fair that features student organizations. Kelley recalls noticing a ten-foot model rocket hoisted on the shoulders of two students laughing and jogging to the opposite side of the field. He thought to himself, “follow those footsteps!” The name of the student organization in charge of that rocket, now known as the BU Rocket Propulsion Group, was painted on the side.
Before joining a team, Kelley weighed his enthusiasm about the BU Rocket Propulsion Group with his interest in other groups, and his collegiate goals. He spent the remaining year developing relationships with organization members, contemplating rocketry, and discovering how to best manage his time.
At the end of the academic year, Kelley and a member of the Rocket Propulsion Group were chatting about the organization. Kelley’s friend expressed some concern about the group’s leadership. The group insider mentioned that the vice president was expected to graduate with no prospect of a predecessor. Instinctively Kelley responded, “I will do it.”
Two years later, Kelley recalls those four words as the best he ever said. Joining the group helped Kelley to realize his passion for space programs, and introduced him to a network of some of his most trusted advisors, including Professor Semeter and Principal Fellow at Raytheon Missile Systems Joe Sebeny.
Towards the end of his second year at BU, Kelley was at a crossroad. He needed a summer job, and had been denied internships at Google and Microsoft. Uninterested in returning to his home in Texas, Kelley took the advice of Professor Semeter and applied to work at Boston University Student Satellite for Applications and Training program, specifically ANDESITE. It was a pivotal time for the satellite program, as it had recently been awarded an Air Force Research Laboratory grant and joined a national competition to win the opportunity to launch a satellite to orbit. As one of the newest members to the satellite program, the Texan embraced the organization’s mission to design, fabricate, and operate a low-earth-orbiting satellite.
In September 2013, the beginning of Kelley’s final year at BU, his extracurricular and academic interests melted into one. Kelley opted to complete his academic capstone requirements by completing an honors thesis, rather than a senior design project. His theses work, entitled “Design and Implementation of a 3-DOF Rocket Autopilot,” advanced both the BU Student Satellite and supported the BU Rocket Propulsion Group.
“Design and Implementation of a 3-DOF Rocket Autopilot” provided an analysis and design investigation of rocket trajectory systems to develop a functioning autopilot. Without trajectory control, a rocket would run the risk of becoming a missile.
After graduation, Kelley will spend a week with his family in Fort Worth, Texas before jet-setting to Los Angles, California to be a Space X intern. Kelley will be involved in vehicle and systems integration for the Dragon capsule.
Boston University Rocket Propulsion Group Watch the group’s second hot fire test:
App Connects You to Nearby Friends
You’ve just emerged from a lecture in fluid mechanics with 90 minutes to spare before your next class. You’re also hungry, and wouldn’t mind some company while you chow down. So you whip out your smartphone, click on an app and tap on the names of two friends who the app shows are available and close by. Seconds after you send them a request—“[Your name] wants to hang out with you at 3:15 p.m. at The Fresh Food Co. at Marciano Commons.”—you receive
notification that one of the friends has accepted. Problem solved.
The app that’s enabling such connections,Downtyme, is the brainchild of Barron Roth and Luke Sorenson (both CE’16), who came up with the idea last November when deciding on a final project for
their Introduction to Software Engineering course. They subsequently turned it into a startup, Downtyme LLC, within three months. After releasing the app for beta testing to students at colleges and universities in Boston on March 31, Downtyme LLC aggregated nearly 500 downloads the first day.
The app’s immediate popularity is no surprise to Roth.
“It’s very difficult for college students to find opportunities to get together with friends, given the intricacies of our schedules,” he said. “Having access to a list of people you care about who are available and nearby makes life more social and enjoyable.” It also encourages you to spend less time on your smartphone and more time connecting offline.
Users identify their friends by linking the app to their Facebook account, and indicate t
heir availability by entering or importing their calendars. To bring up a list of nearby
Facebook friends, they may either press “Now” or “Later,” depending on when they want to get together. Users may also press “Hide me” to keep their schedules hidden until further notice, or “Bulletins” to post an open invitation to all their Downtyme friends to join them for activities ranging from study sessions to frat parties.
“Downtyme is a fantastic example of students taking a real-world need—scheduling free time—and translating that into a software application,” said Assistant Prof
essor Douglas Densmore (ECE, BME), the Introduction to Software Engineeringinstructor. “Its level of polish and presentation are on par with a professional-level startup, and the leadership of the project is committed to its success.”
Convinced that the idea had commercial potential after they and three other teammates completed a functioning version for Android mobile devices in December, Roth and Sorenson began laying the groundwork for a startup. Over the winter break, the co-founders brought in Nicholas Sorenson (SMG’14) for financial expertise, and recruited Timothy Chong (CE’16) and John Moore (CE’15) to help Luke develop the app for the iPhone and improve the server infrastructure. Roth focuse
d on branding, marketing and customizing the look and feel of Downtyme.
“It’s very rewarding working on a startup, where every decision you make has a big impact and can affect the future of your company,” said Roth, who is now working on Downtyme after hours while serving as a spring semester co-op at AMD in Austin, Texas. Taking advantage of his Austin location, Roth recently pitched the app to 500 technology enthusiasts at the city’s annual South by Southwest festival.
Downtyme plans to launch the app across the country in the fall, distributing it through campus representatives at Stanford University, University of California, Berkeley, and other colleges and universities. The company’s initial goal is to build a substantial user base for the free app, and then develop revenue-generating partnerships with academic institutions and industry.
New “Atom Calligraphy” Technology Could Lead to Mass-Produced Nanodevices
One of the biggest obstacles on the road to mass-producing nanoscale devices ranging from integrated circuits to biosensors is a persistent inability to precisely manipulate nanomaterials to build reliable, functional products at a reasonable cost. The main challenge has been to pattern materials at precise locations in a repeatable manner over relatively large areas. Conventional approaches have proven inconsistent, wasteful and expensive.
To meet this challenge, Professor David Bishop (ECE, Physics, MSE) and collaborators at Boston University and Bell Laboratories have developed a low-cost, microelectromechanical system (MEMS)-based machine that directs atoms onto a surface through different-sized holes – each no more than 50 nanometers across – on silicon plates. These MEMS plates can move with nanometer precision to create exacting patterns over surfaces of more than 400 square microns, roughly the area of a human white blood cell. Shutters positioned a micrometer or so above each MEMS plate enable high-speed control of where and when atoms are deposited.
The researchers have produced lines, bridges, rings, infinity symbols, BU logos and many other nanoscale metal patterns by depositing gold and chromium atoms through the holes while moving the plates. The machine and the concept behind it are described in Nano Letters.
“We’ve figured out a way to directly write with small numbers of atoms, to do calligraphy with atoms,” said Bishop, who compared the new MEMS-based machine to a nano-spray painter. He envisions that the method could lead to a cost-effective, chip-based fabrication process for atomic-scale materials and devices that are initially designed in digital simulations, making possible everything from downsized electronics to more compact biosensors.
To come up with the idea to build a programmable device that could directly write with atoms, Bishop drew upon previous experiences working with MEMS technology and nanostencils, or stencils used to fabricate nanoscale patterns on a surface. The new method effectively uses MEMS technology to move a nanostencil over a silicon surface.
“People have devised a variety of techniques for moving atoms around that are expensive, complicated or not scalable,” said Bishop. “Our system avoids these drawbacks and provides programmability. It is fun technology to play with, we’re having a blast.”
“What is synthetic biology and what can it do?” asked Corey Powell, the editor-at-large of DISCOVER magazine, at a recent conference on the topic. “You’re lucky that you have the world’s leaders in that field right here giving you authoritative answers.”
One of those leaders was Boston University Assistant Professor Douglas Densmore (ECE) who participated in the event, Programming Life: The Revolutionary Potential of Synthetic Biology, on March 25. The conference was sponsored by DISCOVER magazine and SynBERC.
“To me, synthetic biology really is to be able to engineer things using abstraction, modularity and rules,” said Densmore. “If we can compose systems rationally, then ultimately people like myself can get in and build tools and techniques and algorithms to do that.”
Currently, Densmore is working to make the design of synthetic biological systems more mechanized through electronic design automation. CLOTHO, a unified tool set he and his team have designed, encapsulates this research.
His interest in synthetic biology began, in part, when he realized that DNA assembly was not a very efficient or organized practice.
“As a computer engineer, I said there’s a lot of things wrong with this fundamentally,” said Densmore.
At the conference, Densmore spoke on the Catalyzing Biological Engineering panel. The only computer engineer in the discussion, Densmore served as an example of how non-linear the field of biology really is.
Much of the day-long event aimed to show that synthetic biology could be used to make a better world – improving everything from human health to food supplies. To make these changes though, minds from many academic disciplines will need to work together.
Densmore is playing his part by getting students excited about the field, which can be a challenge since researching synthetic biology isn’t as much of an established career path as opposed to, say, working for Google.
“You really have a chance to be a pioneer in this field,” said Densmore. “The kinds of things that we establish now I believe will set the stage for the future.”
Watch the complete video of the panel discussion at DISCOVER.
-Rachel Harrington (email@example.com)
Recently in the Photonics Center, passersby were met with a curious sight on the ninth floor. In a small setup resembling a couple of grocery store shelves, a robot, aptly named ShopBot, was picking out items from a grocery list.
Designed by seniors Jeffrey Chang, John-Nicholas Furst, Ngozi Nwogwugwu, Gurwinder Singh, and Hei Po Yiu, the Grocery Shopping Robot was one of 17 senior design projects on display as part of Boston University’s Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering’s annual ECE Day.
“We wanted to come up with a cheap, automated way to find groceries in a store,” said Singh during their presentation. Their robot uses a pathfinding algorithm to take the shortest path possible and scans barcodes to find its items.
Singh was one of 74 students showing the results of two semesters of work to faculty, friends, parents, and guests on May 6. Additionally, three seniors opted to write an honors thesis and presented their posters during the event.
The projects, one of the last requirements for seniors before they earn their undergraduate degree, allow students to design a prototype, electronic device or software system. Teams work with real world customers that include BU professors and companies like Microsoft and Bell Labs – Alcatel-Lucent.
“This year’s senior design class has been one of the very best,” said Associate Professor of the Practice Alan Pisano (ECE), the senior design advisor. “I have enjoyed working with such a talented and dedicated group.”
This year’s projects ranged from a deshredder, designed to test if shredding is secure with today’s computing techniques, to an application that would allow professors to more easily track how a student is performing using BU’s education software, Blackboard.
Six alumni who previously completed senior design projects, David Lancia (ECE ’02, MS ’04), Craig LaBoda (ECE ’11), David Mabius (ECE ’07, MS ’09), Mike Kasparian (ECE ’12), Aaron Ganick (ECE ’10), and Bradley Rufleth (ECE ’04), returned to their alma mater in the roles of judges.
Said Pisano: “The ECE Day judges told me that the job of selecting the winners was most difficult this year because of all of the excellent projects, and they wished we had more awards to give.”
After much deliberation, the judges awarded Calibration Device for Microarray Slides the top prize, the P. T. Hsu Memorial Award for Outstanding Senior Design Project. Sasha Gazman, Ryan Lagoy, Allison Marn, and Jyotsna Singh worked with Professor Selim Ünlü (ECE, BME) to develop a system for detecting target proteins, allergens, and diseases on microarray slides.
“Our system improves upon the accuracy of fluorescence based testing and is compact, portable, and user-friendly,” Singh said during her team’s presentation.
“Overall, we’re increasing the accuracy of diagnostics,” added Lagoy, who also was awarded the Michael F. Ruane Award for Excellence in Senior Capstone Design.
In a show of solidarity, the graduate students in Ünlü’s Optical Characterization and Nanophotonics Laboratory turned out to support the undergraduates during their team presentation.
The day centered around the seniors’ accomplishments, but two teachers were awarded as well. David Castañón, ECE professor and department chair, presented Ari Trachtenberg with the ECE Award for Excellence in Teaching and Molly Crane was named the GTF of the Year.
Other awards at this year’s ECE Day included:
Center for Space Physics Undergraduate Research Award
Senior Honors Thesis Award
Beat Wave Generation and Interactions with Space Plasmas at Gakona, Alaska: Lisa A. Rooker
Pitch: Brad Berk, Nick Lippis, Patrick Maruska, and Robins Patel
Design Excellence Awards
Choreographed LED Artwork: Chris Davis, Mike Gurr, Chris Hall, Matt Lee, and Kevin Meyer
Automated DNA Assembly Platform for Bioengineering: Alejandro Pelaez Lechuga and Janoo Fernandes
-Rachel Harrington (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Your next security ID may be a defining gesture
In the video above, two College of Engineering professors explain, and demonstrate, the computer software they are developing to recognize a gesture, from your torso, your hand, or perhaps just your fingers. They hope this could be the future security portal to your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or the locked door to authorized personnel-only spaces.
To the casual passerby, Janusz Konrad seems a bit fanatical about tai chi: standing in his office, waving one arm to and fro, then spreading both arms and bringing them together. Duck inside, however, and you’ll notice he’s not stretching for his health; he’s stretching for a camera, and images on a computer monitor are responding to each gesture – zooming in and out of photos or leapfrogging through a photo series.
Konrad, a College of Engineering professor of electrical and computer engineering, and Prakash Ishwar, an associate professor, designed the computer’s software to recognize specific body motions. They’re not making video games. This, they hope, is the future security portal to your smartphone, tablet, laptop, or the locked door: software programmed to recognize a gesture, from your torso, your hand, or perhaps just your fingers.
Armed with an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and collaborating with colleagues at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University, the BU duo is developing algorithms for ever-smarter motion sensors. In doing so, they have to thread a tricky technological needle. “On the one hand,” says Ishwar, “you want security and privacy; nobody else should be able to authenticate on your behalf” by aping your gesture. On the other hand, if the system demands a perfectly precise gesture, you may have to flail your arms or other parts 10 times to get into your own account. “That’s annoying,” says Ishwar. (And people may think you’re either crazy or infested with lice.)
A workable system must be able to screen out distractions, like the motion of someone moving behind you or of the backpack you’re wearing, or changes in ambient lighting.
Yet using gestures as keys to cyber-locks would have some great advantages. A gesture, like a lateral swipe of your hand, has “subtle differences in the way people do it,” Ishwar says – and people vary in arm length, musculature, and other traits that might help a detector distinguish between you and Arnold Schwarzenegger or Elle Macpherson. True, gestures aren’t as unique as fingerprints or as irises or faces, for which there are authentication scanners. But unlike those traits, which theoretically are vulnerable if someone hacks the database storing them, an authenticating gesture that’s been compromised by an impostor can be replaced immediately, whereas getting a new fingerprint – well, “you wouldn’t like it,” says Ishwar.
Security passwords pose another problem: the most effective ones tend to be inconveniently complex. Konrad surveyed one of his classes and found that no one used a smartphone passcode longer than four digits. An effective motion sensor could “simplify, make more secure and more pleasant the process of logging in,” he says. He and Ishwar are working to develop gesture-based authentication software to be test-run on Microsoft’s motion-sensing Kinect camera, used with the Xbox video game and the Windows computer operating system. “It can track your body,” says Ishwar, “get some skeleton approximation for your body, and then that information is provided to you in some real-time format.”
They also hope to use start-up company Leap Motion’s smaller motion-sensing device for notepads and laptops. The company claims that its device, the size of an iPod, will be able to read “micro-motions of your fingers,” says Konrad. In the next three to four years, “we want to develop something that’s extremely simple, inexpensive, and can be imbedded into other products and could be used daily by millions of people.”
One thing that is clear is that certain body parts, like hands, lend themselves to identity authentication better than others. “The degree of freedom that you have with your hands is significantly higher,” Ishwar says. “Maybe if I’m a yoga master, I can move my right leg and put it across my left shoulder, but most people can’t do that.” They’d like to experiment also with the torso, says Konrad, since people’s posture can vary. Then there’s Leap Motion and its potential finger recognition.
“We plan to involve more and more body parts” as the research progresses, Konrad says. If that sounds vaguely Frankenstein-ish, consider that today’s security technology already involves fingerprints, iris scans, and face recognition. “Wouldn’t it be nice,” muses Ishwar, “if we could do that using our everyday body language or gestures?”
Video by Alan Wong
This article originally appeared in BU Today.
BU satellite team goes weightless
Seven College of Engineering students are still walking on air, at least figuratively, after a recent opportunity to test their satellite design at near-zero gravity. Members of the Boston University Student Satellite for Applications and Training (BUSAT) team participated in a weeklong series of microgravity flights over the Gulf of Mexico in late August.
“It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done,” says mechanical engineering graduate student and project manager Nathan Darling (ENG ’13). Through NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program, the students were able to test and fine-tune the space-worthiness of a prototype modular satellite designed to deliver scientific instrumentation into orbit. They also learned to work upside down in rapidly changing gravity environments and perform on-the-fly equipment repairs to ensure a successful test.
Not only did the flights provide valuable insight into their satellite’s performance in a space-like environment, but “it’s pure gold,” Darling says, for student spaceflight engineers to be able to count this among their experiences. “We’re all really interested in aerospace careers.” Just being at the Johnson Space Center was a thrill for the young engineers, who returned to Boston sporting NASA T-shirts. Team members got the idea to apply for the program at the annual AIAA/USU Small Satellite Conference, held in Logan, Utah, in August 2011, recalls Christopher Hoffman (ENG ’13). “We met a team from Colorado, and they had a video of themselves testing their satellite in a microgravity environment.” The BU team worked through the application process and a proposal written by microgravity team members Darling and David Harris (ENG ’15), who is also president of the BU Rocket Team, was approved last winter.
During the team’s August flights, which took place in a modified Boeing 727 jetliner, the students floated for periods of 25 seconds at a time, first with limbs akimbo and eventually with a measure of control, while testing the satellite’s hardware. Of specific interest was the dynamics of a door-like component on their satellite holding a solar panel. They’re hoping that the satellite, which resembles a contemporary end table, will facilitate many future space research missions — technology that “will make scientific instruments that fly in space as easy to use as your USB mouse,” Darling predicts.
Funded in part by the U.S. Air Force through the University Nanosat Program, the satellite project is the result of six years of efforts by more than 60 undergraduate and graduate students studying engineering, computer science, physics, and astronomy. Ted Fritz, a College of Arts & Sciences astronomy professor, provides project leadership through the BU Center for Space Physics. Fritz has appointments in the ENG mechanical engineering and electrical and computer engineering departments as well. The student project is also supported by contributions from ENG and CAS.
“The team did very well,” says Fritz, who along with the BUSAT students, has fingers crossed for the final satellite competition review on January 10 at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, N.M. “They’d searched out the microgravity possibilities and all I had to do was bless it,” Fritz says. “That they went through all this and are still speaking to one another is quite impressive.” He says all of the current BUSAT team members hope to commandeer some type of van to drive out to Albuquerque together.
NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program provides low-cost access to suborbital space, about 60 miles above sea level, where researchers can expose their technologies to brief periods of weightlessness in a reduced-gravity environment using both commercial aircraft and rockets. The program also offers them the opportunity to loiter high in the Earth’s atmosphere using commercial balloons. The BUSAT team’s flights—three in all—lasted about two and a half hours each, with up to 60 fleeting periods of microgravity simulated by the plane going into a controlled free fall.
If that sounds sickening, it often is. Rarely a flight goes by without at least one, and usually more, scientists experiencing motion sickness, in spite of the standard preflight shot of antiemetic. But unlike many fliers, “none of the BU students threw up,” says Steven Yee (ENG ’11,’13). A two-hour safety session helped prepare them to take precautions (never lose your grip on any object, large or small), but it could not have properly prepared them, he says, for “the sensation of sitting and suddenly there’s no force on your butt.” The inside of the plane’s stripped-down fuselage is completely padded so no one goes careening into hard metal. But the effort involved in focusing everything from limbs to eyeballs can be draining. “We were exhausted by the experience,” recalls Yee, who along with other teammates gained physical confidence with each spin, and ultimately gave himself over to that weightless feeling.
The experience was unlike what many of the students had expected. (Yee was thinking, wrongly as it turned out, “roller coaster.”) Once familiarized with the sensation and the fleeting time available to test the solar panel door, the students “ended up doing a lot of work upside down,” says Erik Knechtel (ENG ’14). Working the solar panel mechanism as it hovered in front of them, the team discovered that the spring action, which worked fine in the lab, needed some modification to function easily at zero gravity. With the device suspended in air, team members even “did some wire stripping with our teeth,” to repair a faulty circuit, Knechtel recalls.
A level of vigilance was required to make sure no parts drifted away, according to Darling. In near-zero gravity even the tiniest wayward screw or washer could lodge in the aircraft’s control systems and endanger the entire aircraft, so if a part can’t be accounted for, the craft is grounded until the part is found. “At one point we accidentally set a few washers loose, but Josh grabbed one and Chris grabbed another,” says Darling.
The BU team happened to be in Houston when Apollo astronaut Neil Armstrong died at age 82. Four BUSAT team members were on board the final flight of the week, when the pilot performed a memorial lunar gravity parabola in honor of the Apollo 11 astronaut. Armstrong, an icon of early American manned spaceflight, used similar parabolic microgravity testing for equipment used to develop lunar lander missions.
If the BUSAT team is selected as competition winner in January, members will have two more years to bring their satellite to flight status with funding of $55,000 each year, says Fritz. In the meantime, he says, “to give you an idea of how enthusiastic this crew is, a call for proposals for a competition to design CubeSat, or miniature variety satellites, was just announced — and Tuesday we submitted two proposals.”