January 11, 2008

Student team wins honors in international contest

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. — A team of engineering students from Southern Illinois University recently snagged honors at an international engineering contest in Taiwan.

The students demonstrated their work in developing wireless Internet sensors and several applications for such networks at the annual Creativity in Action Design Competition there.

The team's work is an offshoot of a $1 million Federal Highway Administration's Intelligent Transportation Systems grant garnered by Shing-Chung "Max" Yen, director of the Materials Technology Center at SIUC. Yen and the students are working on Internet-based wireless sensors and databases aimed at providing near real-time data and analysis of transportation structures, such as bridges. The hybrid system, which combines integrated sensor networks with wireless and Internet technology, could improve safety and efficiency in transportation systems and other applications.

The team of students includes Chris Williams, a junior in civil and environmental engineering from West Frankfort; Oliver Yang, a doctoral student in electrical engineering from Taipei, Taiwan, and Adam Miller, a senior in electrical engineering from Minier. They made the 30-hour trip to I-Shou University in Kaohsiung, Taiwan in mid-December, arriving at midnight the evening before the competition, which featured projects from five international teams.

The SIUC team won the prize for creativity in technology integration by demonstrating three applications for the wireless Internet-based sensor network.

Williams said the students showed how the sensors would work to monitor structural integrity of a bridge, work as a fire detection network and monitor water quality.

In the bridge monitoring application, the students showed how the sensors can detect variables such as stresses, elongation and deformation and then send the data to an off-site Internet server, where engineers can download it for analysis.

For fire detection, the students showed how placing temperature sensors in each room of a house could indicate a fire and alert the local fire department, which could then access a database that perhaps would show the exact location of the fire within the structure.

For water quality monitoring, the students demonstrated how sensors could measure the acidity of different water samples using sensors placed in vinegar and baking soda solutions.

Williams said the sensor networks they are working on in Yen's lab represent important advances to current such networks.

"By being Internet-based, it makes it cutting edge and available to plug in almost everywhere in the world," he said. "And it's all wireless."

The team spent the next few days touring various sites in Taiwan, including Kanting National Park at the southern tip of Taiwan and National Cheng Kung University, an SIUC sister university.

They also spoke with members of the Taiwan team, who are designing a bed for disabled patients using a similar sensor network concept.

"It was a great experience to be able to see that culture," Williams said. "I eventually want to become a professor, and this gave me an opportunity to share what we're doing in our part of the world with other people in my field."