Center for Integrated Systems in Sensing, Imaging, and Communication
Director, Timothy Schulz
Electrical and Computer Engineering
Better, Faster, Cheaper, Safer
A Research Center at the Center of Everything
Tim Schulz asks a visitor to picture how communication has changed during the last two decades. Now imagine where it will be in five years
There's no shame in being stumped. The technology of communication-and what is being communicated-is morphing at a phenomenal rate. At Michigan Tech, the Center for Integrated Systems in Sensing, Imaging, and Communications (CISSIC) is envisioning where all aspects of communications technology will be in 2012 and beyond, with applications ranging from cell phones and robots to nano-transmitters and real-life psychokinesis. "At CISSIC, we're looking at systems design as a whole," says Schulz.
CISSIC has garnered more than $5 million in funding from agencies such as the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, says Schulz, who directs the center and is also chair of Michigan Tech's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. He's not surprised at the level of interest.
Communications technology has advanced to the point where dreams are becoming the stuff of everyday life. "It can happen now," Schulz says. "I don't think we'll ever tire of having more information. Cost stopped us before, but technology is changing that.
"This is an area that's poised for extreme growth."
Schulz pulls out his cell phone and offers a primer. "Basically, this is really just a radio with antennas, transmitters, receivers, and, if you have a camera, a little lens," he explains. "What makes it so great is the electronics.
Now, electronics convert images gathered in the camera lens to JPEG files and display them on the screen. The limiting factor is the lens; it has to be small enough to fit into the cell phone, and small lenses mean low-resolution images. To take really good photos with your cell phone, you'd need something completely different.
One tack would be to develop an array of small lenses and integrate their information in a single image, much like a fly's eye. Another would be to bypass the lens all together. "We're looking at building imaging systems that don't use conventional lenses," Schulz says.
A CISSIC project led by Professor Michael Roggemann delves into image processing as well, but it involves the even more-sophisticated electronics of the human mind.
With investigators from the New York University School of Medicine and the Michigan Tech Research Institute, he is investigating how the brain's signals might be used to focus optical systems.
A soldier could use the technology to sight in on a target, or a surveillance camera could automatically focus on a suspicious object. However, the technology's uses spill over into numerous civilian applications. "We'd like to be able to focus all kinds of optical systems hands-free," Roggemann says. "Wouldn't it be cool to have a pair of glasses that knew you were struggling to read and could adjust?"
He cautions that the research, while promising, is still in its infancy. "This is a very exploratory study," he says carefully.
"But to be able to control something with brainwaves," he muses. "This is a Holy Grail."
CISSIC research is not limited to the surface of the Earth. Roggemann is leading a project on "space situational awareness."
"We're using high-energy lasers to keep track of all the stuff in orbit," he says. "You'd be amazed at how full space is-the orbits are very populated." But they aren't very stable, and when satellites wobble, the results can range from inconvenient to catastrophic. "If two satellites collide, they are both toast," says Roggemann. "It's like space traffic control. You really want to protect manned space flight."
Another CISSIC project, involving Roggemann, Schulz, and Assistant Professors Gerry Tian, Tricia Chigan, Reza Zekavat, and Jindong Tan, would apply twenty-first century technology to an activity almost as old as civilization: shipping.
With support from the US Army, they are working to improve radio frequency identification tags, RFID tags for short. The tags are used to keep track of shipping containers, anywhere, anytime. "They would replace the bar code," says Tan. But you wouldn't have to scan the tag-it would constantly send out a "here I am" message to the network, announcing its location.
The same technology being developed to keep track of shipments of military hardware could be used with equal effect in retail commerce. "If you were shopping at Wal-Mart and you wanted to find something, the RFID tag could tell a computer right where it is," to the aisle and shelf.
Tan's specialty is sensors and their networks, and the halls outside his lab are lined with them, a row of small black boxes discreetly tucked up next to the ceiling. Inside the lab is a big red robot toy truck, tricked out with electronic gadgetry. "A robot is really a super sensor-lots of expensive sensors," says Tan. "But this," he says, holding one of his little black boxes, "has an advantage. It can be an extended eye."
Cheap and disposable, sensors could be deployed en masse by the military. "You can have them all over the place, and if you see something suspicious, you can call in a mobile robot to figure out what's going on."
The goal is to save human lives. "It's OK to lose a robot. It's not OK to lose a person," Tan notes.
Similar systems could be used to help the military keep track of its own personnel, says Zekavat, who is researching wireless systems technology. "Soldiers could have a simple transceiver that costs less than one dollar strapped to their wrists, and keep us from bombing our own troops," he says.
At home, sensors have applications ranging from finding lost children to monitoring heart patients. "I have one student working on a sensor that could tell if the wearer falls," says Tan.
Generally, these electronic devices are no bigger than an iPod, but Associate Professor Paul Bergstrom aims to develop a new, fundamental technology that could shrink them even further: a single electron transistor, which could spawn a new generation of nano-devices. These quantum transistors would not only be unimaginably small, they would also open the door to multiple levels of logic, increasing the capability of electronic devices exponentially.
Their only problem: they function best at about 4 degrees Kelvin, the temperature of liquid helium. Bergstrom and his team have been working to make single electron transistors that work at room temperature. The results are encouraging.
CISSIC director Tim Schulz is pleased to acknowledge that the center's research is a step beyond the ordinary. "The work we're doing is not just about making things better," he says. "It's about making something totally different.
And if we think the next generation of electronics will be slow to arrive, we should consider how the cell phone has become entrenched in our daily lives. The next big thing is just over the horizon, Schulz believes. "If we spin ahead five or ten years, we'll all wonder how we got along without it."