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A Growing Sense of Accomplishment

Challenging engineers and scientists to keep up, new sensor developments promise to change life as we know it.

A sensor panel from the StressWare systemA sensor panel from the StressWare system, developed by Emre Ertin, a research assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering, and colleagues, is used in a wearable chest band for assessment of human stress levels outside the lab environment. And don’t miss this one: “‘Smart dust’ aims to monitor everything,” a May 3, 2010, CNN story about HP’s Central Nervous System for the Earth, announced in November 2009 as the company’s aim for a new information ecosystem “consisting of a trillion nanoscale sensors and actuators embedded in the environment and connected via an array of networks with computing systems, software and services to exchange their information among analysis engines, storage systems and end-users.”Consider some recent headlines: “Wal-Mart Radio Tags to Track Clothing” (Wall Street Journal, July 23, 2010); “Intel Working on Black Box for Your Car” (New York Times blog, July 7, 2010); and “Sony Prototypes Eye-tracking Glasses for Lifelog” (Tech-On Technology and Industry Analysis from Asia, June 4, 2010).

Faculty members and researchers at Ohio State’s College of Engineering aren’t missing out. Across all engineering disciplines and taking advantage of expertise from other colleges as well as national and international peers, they are working sensor development from every angle.

“The work we do on sensors and sensor systems covers the gamut from smart materials to information processing and communicating all the way through to the human interface,” says Randy Moses, associate dean for research and a professor of electrical and computer engineering whose expertise lies in sensors. “Few universities cover that level of breadth and integrate all of those activities.”

On all fronts

Beyond materials and sensor creation, engineering researchers here advance related technology, including information processing and communications. Much of that work is done at the ElectroScience Laboratory, which enables the transmit and receive functions of every sensor and data system associated with wireless communications. Examples include RFID connectivity for product tracking and for monitoring the condition of machinery including aircraft, UAVs and ground vehicles; GPS navigational systems; software radars; and radios.

Much of ESL’s future focus will likely be on health monitoring of patients and their communication with medical personnel.

“One of our visions is to enable medical support beyond hospital walls using high-bandwidth communication platforms that will monitor both day-to-day medical conditions as well as provide high-quality imagery between remote patients and doctors,” says John Volakis, ESL director. “Concurrently, such sensing platforms will provide similar military-related capabilities for soldiers and communication networks on the move.”

The College of Engineering has a strong history of success in automotive research, so it’s no surprise sensors play a significant role in those activities.

fibers from electrospun polyvinylidene fluorideResearchers at the Smart Materials and Structures Laboratory fabricate these fibers from electrospun polyvinylidene fluoride (PVDF), which could be woven into yarns to create smart fabrics capable of measuring the forces acting on them. Special electrodesIn addition to the industry and government support the college receives for sensor research, faculty members are widely recognized for their expertise in this industry. For instance, Sheikh Akbar, professor of materials science and engineering, has received three R&D 100 Awards for best inventions, one in 2007 and two in 2005, from R&D Magazine.Researchers at the Smart Materials and Structures Laboratory, directed by Marcelo Dapino, associate professor of mechanical engineering, are working on automotive sensor-related projects including contactless torque sensors for real-time measurement of static and dynamic torque in automotive, industrial and rotorcraft applications, a project supported by the Smart Vehicle Concepts Center industrial consortium, and a Honda R&D Americas-supported adaptive seat-belt system using smart material technologies.

As cost, programmability and efficiency improvements continue to drive exploitation of sensors, researchers seek ways to create sensor systems or networks that can communicate and multitask. A leader in this field is Anish Arora, professor of computer science and engineering, who in 2004 led a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency team to demonstrate and experiment with the Extreme Scaling project, code-named “ExScal,” to investigate the challenges in scaling to a network of 10,000 sensor nodes that could be used for the detection and classification of multiple intruder types over an extended perimeter. This work resulted in the Networked Embedded Systems Technology (NEST) Flagship Experiment, the world’s largest wireless sensor network operating at the time. The 6,500-square-foot Kansei networked sensor testbed facility he developed at Ohio State as part of that project continues to be used to conduct at-scale validation experiments over its nearly 1,000 wireless sensor nodes of various platforms.Kansei software installers have since been used to create clones of the testbed at other universities, enabling federated experiments over multiple sites and integration with in-the-cloud services.

testbedAt-scale experiments of sensor networks deployed in the field can be performed and studied on this testbed, directed by computer science and engineering Professor Anish Arora.Considering the potential of the huge capabilities developing in the sensor industry, Ness Shroff, Ohio Eminent Scholar in Networking and Communications and professor of computer science and engineering, investigates the control of large-scale sensor networks. With $1.5 million in funding from an Army Research Office Multidisciplinary University Research Initiativeand two National Science Foundation awards, he is building a scientific foundation for a clean slate design of network architectures and to guide the evolution from existing network architectures to new ones.Arora now is working on PeopleNet, a system that connects mobile devices directly with sensor devices, such as on other mobile devices, in buildings, on streets, etc. Arora and his colleagues use Ohio State as a living laboratory to test the system, the applications for which could range from remotely determining whether a plant in an office needs water to detecting work stoppage at a construction site or the locations and movement of people and vehicles on a battlefield.

In addition to technology, our faculty study what happens once people enter the picture and try to use or interpret data from advanced sensors. James Davis, associate professor of computer science and engineering, is developing advanced video surveillance systems that use computers equipped with video cameras to not only detect the presence of people and track them but also to identify their activities. The systems combine video cameras with machine learning methods, enabling the computer to perform the kind of visual recognition that seems effortless for humans. The research has broad implications for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security as well as search and rescue, border patrol, law enforcement and many other types of military applications.

The college’s expertise in sensors is especially relevant now that Ohio has identified sensing systems as a focus area for economic development. The University System of Ohio has named Ohio State a Center of Excellence in Enabling Technologies: Advanced Materials and Sensors. Ohio’s Centers of Excellence are committed to focusing their academic and research activities to lead the state forward in the development, research and commercialization of advanced materials and sensors. Ohio State’s specific strength as a Center of Excellence in this area lies in materials, manufacturing technologies, and nanotechnology.

A broad horizon

video sensor network interfaceA computer screenshot shows the video sensor network interface James Davis, associate professor of computer science and engineering, and his research assistants developed to access and control the cameras of his advanced video surveillance system on the O

In addition to the college’s ElectroScience Laboratory, Center for Automotive Research and Center for Mapping as well as the university’s Institute for Materials Research, our experts in sensors and sensing systems are further organized inthe Information Processing Systems Laboratory and Institute for Sensing Systems.

The Information Processing Systems Laboratory is a 20-year informal collaboration among electrical and computer engineering faculty experts in communications, networking, information theory and signal processing, with application in areas including sensors, radar, wireless and medical imaging.

SnO2 “nano-flowers”Photo illustration Scanning electron microscope image of SnO2 “nano-flowers” synthesized for gas sensor research“One project example is using terahertz sensors to detect chemical and biological elements,” Potter says. “What’s new is we’re exploiting unique signals from explosives, biomaterials and even drugs.”On a much larger scale, the Institute for Sensing Systems, directed by Moses, brings a system-level perspective to solve critical challenges at the boundaries among traditional disciplines.  Current efforts focus on security applications or emergency response. Most recently, Lee Potter, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, heads a five-year NSF Industry/University Cooperative Research Center, theCenter for Surveillance Research, which involves Ohio State and Wright State University researchers in three engineering departments as well as physics and psychology. For the first year alone, the center has received nearly $500,000 in funding from the NSF and industry and government laboratory partners.

ISS activities have also been leveraged in related sensors successes in National Institutes of Health-sponsored projects.

Other areas where College of Engineering faculty members are making great strides in the sensor realm beyond specific sensor capabilities include security, modeling and control, collection and processing of data from sensors, and compressive sensing, or how to handle data collected from sensors at the megapixel level but used at only a few kilobytes.

“At Ohio State, we have a size and breadth through which we are doing fundamental, valuable work across these areas and can team together on the same campus and also bring in legal and social implications that some of this sensing entails, especially in this post-9/11 world,” Potter says. “We’ve got smart people working on the right problems rather than smart people working on clever problems.”


Randy Moses, (614) 292-1325,

Lee Potter, (614) 292-5605,

On the Web:

Institute for Sensing Systems,

Information Processing Systems Laboratory,

Smart Materials and Structures Laboratory,

Center for Surveillance Research,