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UD Students Build Sensor Platform to Help Public Safety


An experimental design course offered during the University of Delaware's 2009 Winter Session provided eight undergraduates in electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science with the opportunity to apply the knowledge they had gained in the classroom to a real-world problem.

In their case, the real-world problem turned out to be as close as the UD campus, and their work could help to enhance the safety and security of the University's students, faculty and staff.

To fulfill the requirements for the course (CPEG366/ELEG366) taught by Fouad Kiamilev, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the undergraduates designed and constructed a non-invasive security system to help gauge alertness levels on campus, with the overall goal being to prioritize camera viewing and deployment of patrols.

“The University of Delaware is in the process of enhancing safety by increasing the number of security cameras throughout campus,” says Albert J. “Skip” Homiak Jr., executive director of campus and public safety. “The additional cameras will incorporate the latest technology and serve as a force multiplier for the UD police. One aspect of the project will include the work done by these students. In addition to the benefit the University will derive, the opportunity will provide the students with exposure to the business world and the problem-solving challenges they'll face upon graduation.”

Kiamilev says that this is the very reason he initiated the course. “In the classroom,” he says, “we're very focused on factual knowledge and the kinds of questions for which there is just one right answer. That information can easily be presented in textbooks. But we also need to impart procedural knowledge, and that's more difficult. You can't teach someone how to ride a bike using a textbook. When these students go out and get jobs, they'll be presented with open-ended problems that don't have just one simple answer, and we need to prepare them for that.”

Not willing to wait for students to gain this experience in their senior design courses, Kiamilev wanted to start earlier, with sophomores and juniors. “If we can turn them on early,” he says, “their experience in their third and fourth years here will be completely different. They will look at everything through different eyes.”

In the experimental design course, the students did not attend classes but spent all of their time working in the lab. They had weekly meetings with Kiamilev and senior Nick Waite to review their progress. Also, as part of learning good engineering practice, they documented their experience on a “wiki” and presented their work at a conference.

By the end of the five-week class, they had completed a hardware prototype that combined an off-the-shelf wireless router with a custom-programmed micro-controller and various sensors (e.g., a webcam, infrared sensors, and sound sensors). Additional sensors can be integrated with the system in the future to increase functionality.

The idea for the project was generated by the students, and it dovetailed with the creation of the network of new video cameras that Public Safety is implementing with technology from Motorola.

“The students recently provided a briefing on their project, and those in the audience were very impressed with the presentation,” Homiak says. “After the briefing, representatives from Motorola commented that, considering the obvious talent of the students, they need to start a recruitment campaign on the UD campus. I hope this is just the beginning of an academic partnership with future UD projects. Already we are discussing a crime mapping project with another student.”

“Public Safety was very generous with information and very open to having students involved with improving safety on campus,” says Stephen Janansky, a junior computer engineering major who worked on the project. “We had heard that students didn't feel safe at night, and we wanted to do something about it.”

According to Kiamilev, this is a critical component in the success of the project. “The representatives from Motorola and the officers with UD Public Safety emphasized that it's important for the people being protected to feel invested in their own safety,” he says. “Having our students involved in the design and testing of this system can go a long way toward building that feeling of investment.”

“We're very grateful for the funding provided by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering for this class,” Kiamilev adds, “because innovative educational programs like this are the key to educational excellence.

Additional information about the project is available at this Web site.

Article by Diane Kukich

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