Fridays with Fuhrmann: Taking A Break

FWF-20180629-Aerial201506190309Today is “New Year’s Eve” of a sort here at Michigan Tech, the last workday of the 2018 fiscal year. Come next week the university will be closing its books, and we will begin the process of evaluating our financial position and reviewing our institutional progress over the last twelve months.

As if all that accounting and reporting weren’t enough, July 1 is the date of a major turnover in university leadership, something I have written about a few times before. Michigan Tech will welcome our new president, Rick Koubek, along with four new academic deans including Janet Callahan, the new dean of the College of Engineering. For the most part I think the university has been in a holding pattern in the month of June, in anticipation of the big changes to come.

The exception to that statement was the big June 17 flood event that no one saw coming and shook us all up, and that shifted attention away from normal university activity for a while. Things have settled down now, and while there is still a lot of work to be done in the community, the recovery efforts have been swift and nothing short of remarkable. Many of us are ready to turn our attention to the new year and everything it will bring.

I would be remiss if I did not say something about Wayne Pennington, our outgoing dean of the College of Engineering and my boss for the past five years. I think Wayne did a great job in the Dean’s Office; I like him and we got along just fine. I can’t point to any meteoric rise in our performance metrics, but under Wayne’s leadership the College of Engineering continued to do what is does very well in teaching and research, there were no major crises (that I know of), and along the way he worked to clean up some of the internal administrative processes, which will certainly make life easier for the incoming dean. I know that sounds like faint praise, but there is a lot to be said for keeping the organization humming along, allowing others to do their job and providing support and encouragement as appropriate. Wayne was always very encouraging of my efforts to beef up Michigan Tech’s footprint in computing and information sciences, which I wrote about in this column all this past year. Even though he recognized that some of things I advocated could mean significant organizational changes, if they ever come to fruition, he was never threatened by that and on more than one occasion he allowed me to express my views to our External Advisory Board. I am deeply grateful for that. Finally, the grammar maven in me cannot resist saying that Wayne has the best command of the English language of anyone I know at Michigan Tech. He always expressed himself clearly and concisely, he always spoke and wrote in complete sentences, I never heard him abuse the word “alumni” and he never used the subject pronoun “I” as an object. Thanks Wayne for everything you have done, and for the example you have set for others.

This is going to be my last blog post for a few weeks. While it would be fun to give a blow-by-blow account of transition in leadership, I think it would be more prudent just to participate in that without writing, for a while at least. The real reason I need to take a break, though, is that I am finding that the time required to put together the online version of our course in Digital Signal Processing has far exceeded what I was expecting (well, to be honest, I’m not sure what I was expecting). I need to focus on that and get it right. I’ll put in a shameless plug here: when all is said and done this going to be a slick course and I encourage any off-campus students who want to learn about DSP to take it. I also encourage you to take Tim Schulz’ new online course in Mathematical and Computational Methods in Engineering. Tim is putting in untold hours, shaping this course to be exactly what he wants it to be, and we see eye-to-eye when it comes to the importance of launching this new online program with the highest possible quality. But, it comes at a (very minor) price: no more FWF for the rest of the summer.

Happy Fourth of July everyone! I’ll be writing again around Labor Day.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann, Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Flash Floods and SISU

FWF-image-20180622Saturday night and early Sunday morning, June 16 and 17, Houghton County residents were kept awake by booming thunderstorms and torrential rains, and we arose Sunday morning to one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit this area. Major flash floods had washed out roads, destroyed homes, and left piles of mud and rocks in streets, driveways, and front yards. Agate Street in Houghton was completely ripped apart; the neighborhood at the base of Ripley Falls had become a boulder field. It was like nothing any of us had ever seen.

Weather reports said that some 4 to 8 inches of rain had fallen overnight, depending on the exact area. 6.72 inches of rain was reported in Hancock. All that water had to go somewhere, and it came rushing down the hills that line both sides of the Portage Canal, turning little creeks and drainages that I never even knew existed into unstoppable whitewater that ate up everything in its path.

Compared to many of the surroundings neighborhoods, the Michigan Tech campus got off pretty easy. In particular, the Electrical Energy Resources Center (EERC), the home building for the ECE Department, came out unscathed, for which I am grateful. However, the Administration Building, which sits at the bottom of Clark Street and right in the line of fire for one of the debris flows on the Houghton side, took a pretty bad hit. The campus was closed on Sunday and Monday, with the power turned off for a good portion of that time. The Admin building is still out of commission.

The emergency response from the university was pretty good. Everyone who was signed up for Safety First Alerts received regular notifications by phone and text, apprising us of the status of the university and the surrounding area. The predominant message was “do not come to campus” and for the most part, we didn’t.

I am not aware of any major damage sustained by ECE faculty, staff, and students, other than some flooded basements which are still no fun and will end up being a significant uninsured expense. I personally had no problems at my home in “Shopko Heights”; even though I live on the side of a hill, there are no ravines to channel the water. Others were not so lucky. Some of my Michigan Tech colleagues outside the ECE Department suffered significant property damage. The Portage Canal has turned completely brown from all the mud, and as of two days ago we are advised to avoid all water contact due to high levels of E. coli and fecal coliform bacteria.

There was one fatality from the storm, a truly tragic story out of Stanton Township which has saddened the entire community.

This sort of thing just doesn’t happen here, or so we thought. We are famous for our winters and lots of snow, and we have fun playing that up and making it sound apocalyptic, but the truth is that snow is pretty benign stuff and we know how to handle it. Our beautiful summers, something of a well-kept secret, are what many see as a reward for having made it through the winter. We are not supposed to have violent weather in the summertime, which makes last weekend’s storm even more of a shock.

Once we did get over the initial shock, the community began to pull together and the rebuilding effort began. We were visited by the Governor and our Senators and Representatives, and efforts are underway to secure federal disaster relief. Not waiting for that, though, neighbors are out helping neighbors clean up the mud and debris. Food and supplies are being donated in large quantities and warehoused in the Dee Stadium. Trucks and large earth-moving machinery can be seen hard at work all over. The major highways in and out of the area, some of which had major washouts and sinkholes, are already back open. Michigan Tech got into the act by opening up the locker rooms in the Student Development Complex (SDC) for anyone who needs a shower, no questions asked. President Mroz praised the “grit, determination, and heart” of everyone in the Houghton-Hancock area for pitching in and doing the right thing. I expected nothing less. While none of us ever want to see something like this happen it feels good to know that we have each others’ backs when times are tough.

Huskies outside the Copper Country can do their part too. I encourage you to visit the June 20 edition of Tech Today, which has a short article titled “How You Can Help”. Information is also available on the Michigan Tech news website.

In the meantime, almost ironically, the weather since Monday has been spectacularly beautiful, sunny and in the 70s. It may not be the way we planned, but perhaps we will enjoy the Keweenaw summer after all, as we work side by side to put our little town back together.

– Dan

[Bottom two photos courtesy of Adam Johnson, Brockit Inc.]

Daniel R. Fuhrmann, Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Happy Trails President Mroz

FWF-20180614In just two short weeks, on July 1, 2018, we are going to see a major changing of the guard here at Michigan Tech. Glenn Mroz, university president for the past 14 years, will be returning to the faculty and Dr. Richard Koubek will be stepping in to take over as the chief executive officer. Simultaneously, four other individuals are moving into leadership positions: Dr. Janet Callahan, Dean of the College of Engineering; Dr. David Hemmer, Dean of the College of Sciences and Arts; Dr. Adrienne Minerick, Dean of the School of Technology; and Dr. Andrew Storer, Dean of the College of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. Drs. Callahan and Hemmer are joining Michigan Tech from outside, and Drs. Minerick and Storer are long-time Michigan Tech faculty members.

It is an exciting time, to be sure, a mix of optimism and nervous anticipation. Actually, the campus has been pretty quiet this June. Maybe it’s because of the beautiful weather and long days, or people are using up some vacation time before the big transition.

A week ago Thursday we held a big university-wide party in the lobby of the Rozsa Center, to recognize and thank Glenn and his wife Gail for all that they have done for the university. There was a great turnout, including members of the Board of Trustees from out of town, along with a pre-recorded video message from Sen. Debbie Stabenow. Dining Services pulled out all the stops with their food and drink, and music from guitarist and retiring Jazz Program Director Mike Irish added a nice touch too. Speeches were heartfelt and mercifully short. The Mrozes were presented with a pair of beautiful Michigan Tech chairs by Board President Terry Woychowski. The mood was upbeat and cheerful as you can imagine, and the admiration and love of the community for Glenn and Gail was on full display.

Glenn has been president for my entire 10 years on the job in the ECE Department, so I do not know Michigan Tech without him. I first met Glenn and Gail during my interview trip in 2008. Tim Schulz, the Dean of the College of Engineering at the time, realized that we were all traveling to Houghton on the same flight the night before, and he asked them to be on the lookout for me. I’ll never forget it – I was hanging out in one of the little gate areas on Concourse A or B in the Minneapolis airport, eating an orange while I waited for the flight. I had sticky orange juice all over my hands when this man walked up and said “Hi, I’m Glenn Mroz, President of Michigan Tech. You must be Dan.” Oops. We had a good laugh (I think) and made small talk for a while, after I got myself cleaned up.

If I could summarize my impression of President Mroz over these past ten years I would say that his passion for Michigan Tech, both as an academic institution and as a community, has been the driving force behind everything he has done. He has overseen a successful capital campaign, guided the university in the growth of his research activity, and helped to foster a culture of diversity and inclusion. Many people have commented that he has moved Michigan Tech to “the next level” and that we are contributing to Michigan, the U.S., and the world in more ways than we did 10 or 20 years ago. His leadership style was highly personal. He was on a first-name basis with everyone he saw regularly, including me and good part of the student body as well. Not everyone agreed with every decision he made, which would be impossible, but I do not know anyone who did not like and respect him, or felt uncomfortable being around him. He was a Husky through and through. Michigan Tech is a better place because of his leadership, and if we continue on our current trajectory of excellence in technological education and research it will be due in no small measure to his example, his hard work, and his vision.

Glenn, thank you for everything you have done for Michigan Tech. I am happy that I know you, and I am proud to have served under you. Enjoy the next few years and the time off that you so richly deserve. I hope that, as you keep an eye on things from a more distant perch, you will be able to take pride in what you started and that we live up to your expectations. On behalf of everyone in the ECE Department, all the best!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann, Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Joshua Pearce Interviewed on Recyclebot 3D Printer

RepRapable Recyclebot assembly
RepRapable RecycleBot

Joshua Pearce (MSE/ECE) was interviewed for the article “Michigan Tech Researchers Publish Paper on New Recyclebot 3D Printer,” published in 3D Print PulseIchiban Electronic Blog and among other sites.

Michigan Tech Researchers Publish Paper on New Recyclebot 3D Printer

Dr. Pearce is a major proponent for sustainability, and has also studied filament recycling in the past. In the 2017 study, Dr. Pearce and the rest of his team discussed the development of a solar-powered version of the open source “recyclebot,” an extruder for waste plastic that he designed back in 2013.

In a new paper, titled “RepRapable Recyclebot: Open source 3-D printable extruder for converting plastic to 3-D printing filament,” Dr. Pearce and his team relay their continued development of the innovative recyclebot, including the full plans, list of parts, and assembly instructions for the device, which was designed for FFF 3D printer-based filament research.

Co-authors of the paper include Michigan Tech’s Aubrey L. Woern, Joseph R. McCaslin, Adam M. Pringle, and Dr. Pearce.

Read more at 3D Print Pulse, by Sarah Saunders.

In the News

Joshua Pearce (MSE/ECE) was featured in the article “Recyclebot an Open-Source 3D Printable Extruder for Converting Plastic to 3D Printing Filament.” in Inside 3D Printing.

Research by undergraduate Aubrey Woern (MEEM) and Joseph McCaslin (ECE), in collaboration with graduate student Adam Pringle (MSE) and Joshua Pearce (MSE/ECE) was featured in the article, “RepRapable Recyclebot: Open-Source-Extruder recycelt Filament,” in the German Make Magazine.

In Print

Undergraduate students Aubrey Woern (MEEM) and Joseph McCaslin (ECE) in collaboration with graduate student Adam Pringle (MSE) and Joshua Pearce (MSE/ECE) published “RepRapable Recyclebot: Open Source 3D Printable Extruder for Converting Plastic to 3-D Printing Filament” in  HardwareX.

PhD student Khalid Khan (ECE) and Lucia Gauchia (ECE/ME) and Joshua Pearce (MSE/ECE) published  Self-sufficiency of 3-D printers: utilizing stand-alone solar photovoltaic power systems, in Renewables: Wind, Water, and Solar.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: One View of Engineering and Computing

FWF-20180525-photoGreetings everyone on what has to be the slowest regular work day of the year on the Michigan Tech campus, the Friday before Memorial Day weekend.

In my work with the Computing and Information Sciences Working Group this year I have had plenty of opportunity to ponder the two disciplines of engineering and computing, and the relationship between the two. I see both of them as components of the innate human enterprise of tool-building, that is to say, the development of technology that we use to improve the human condition. Building these tools is what we are all about at a technological university, and engineering and computing can and do play important complementary roles in our teaching and research programs.

Since engineering has been around longer than computing as both a professional activity and an academic discipline, it typically has a bigger piece of the organizational structure in universities. In the majority of universities in the United States, computing (or computer science) is one department among many in a College of Engineering or similar-named unit, right there alongside mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, chemical engineering, and all the rest. Observing what is happening with computing technology, the high-tech industry, and the employment outlook for computing professionals, I am now convinced that computing is not just another engineering sub-discipline, but rather it is its own field that should be considered complementary to engineering. The two should live side-by-side like two sides of the same technology coin. In engineering we exploit our knowledge of physics and the natural world to create things that never existed before, whereas in computing we rely on our understanding of logic, organization, and complexity. Clearly there are many areas of technology development, like in robotics and automation, where both sides play an important role and there is a kind of convergence, but nevertheless I believe the core disciplines are different. Just like the brains and brawn in our own bodies, neither one can exist without the other but yet they are not the same thing.

Having said that, I find it interesting to note how differently engineering and computing are treated at Michigan Tech, and probably at a lot of universities around the country. Engineering is a big piece of what we do, and it is concentrated almost exclusively within the College of Engineering. We have well-organized and highly regarded programs. Corporate recruiters come from far and wide to our highly successful Career Fair and related events to hire our engineering graduates. Even architecturally the campus seems to be organized around the departments in the College. All of this is very gratifying as you might imagine for our engineering departments and the chairs like me.

Computing, on the other hand, does not enjoy this same level of cohesion. Make no mistake: there is a lot of talent in computing at Michigan Tech, and nothing I say is meant to disparage my colleagues or their fine work. My comments here are really about organization and attitude. You see, at Michigan Tech everyone thinks they can do computing. We see computing programs of one sort or another in every single college and school in the university, and in almost every department. As mentioned above, this may be just a consequence of history, where engineering grew up in one century and computing in another, but I think there is something more at play here.

I would assert that, while engineering and computing are both challenging and difficult fields that when done properly require a lot of hard work and preparation over many years, the initial barrier to entry in computing is much lower than it is in engineering. Think about it. To get into engineering there is a long chain of prerequisite topics going back to high school and middle school, in calculus, differential equations, physics, chemistry, not to mention newer courses in engineering design. On the other hand, the only thing one needs to write the first lines of computer code is the ability to think in an organized way about abstract concepts of variables and operations and doing things in sequence. In my own experience as an undergraduate, it took me a couple of years to get to the point where I could design an electronic circuit, but in my freshman year I was taking courses in computer science and by the end of that first year I had written some pretty substantial programs in PL/1 that actually did real things. Let me be clear: I am not saying that the professional practice of computing is any easier than the professional practice of engineering. I am only saying that it is easier to get started.

Let me give a couple of analogies outside the world of STEM. First, in music. It takes year to learn to play an instrument, and the early going is particularly tough for instruments like violin or saxophone (not only for the student but the parents!) You just have to have faith that eventually all that hard work is going to pay off. Vocalists have no such problem getting started. Everyone can sing, right? Little kids get started in choirs in schools and churches, and it doesn’t take much to put on a performance that everyone can enjoy. Of course, fast forward twenty years and you realize that being a good singer is really, really hard, just as challenging as being an instrumentalist, and only the best can pull it off. I find it ironic that in shows like “American Idol” and “The Voice”, which I used to watch more than I do now, the singers get all the glory and the instrumentalists work like dogs, performing amazing feats of musicianship in the background with hardly any recognition. Perhaps there is more to this analogy with computing and engineering than I care to think about.

Consider the two winter sports of hockey and curling, both popular here in the Copper Country. The learning curve for hockey is long and steep, involving hours of ice time for children and the parents that have to shuttle them around. I have a number of friends here who do play hockey, including colleagues in the ECE Department, and they have been doing it a long time. I realized early on that I was not going to be able to join in on the fun, not without a major investment of time and effort that probably would not be wise for a new department chair. [When I was interviewing for this position, someone asked me if I played hockey, and when I said I did not skate very well, they said that’s OK, you can be goalie.] Shortly after I arrived in Houghton, I learned that there was a curling league in Calumet. I took up the sport, joined a team, and right away I was out on the ice one night a week in the winter. It was fun! Now if you have ever watched curling during the Winter Olympics, you can tell that it requires a lot of skill and precision, and that the experts have been working at it their entire lives. But that does not deter amateurs from going out on a weeknight and throwing the stone down the sheet. Again, it is not that curling is easier than hockey, it is just a lot easier to get started. As a coda to that story, after about 7 years of curling I realized that I was really not very good, and furthermore given time commitments to other activities I was not willing to make the investment of time and effort to get better. So I gave it up.

Back to engineering and computing: because of this substantial difference in the barrier to entry between the two fields, it is relatively easy for smart professionals in engineering, science, and other fields to introduce some aspect of computation into their work. In fact, we hear it all the time: computing is everywhere, and everyone needs to learn some level of computer literacy. I actually do believe that to a certain extent, the same way I think a well-educated person should know how to read and write and think both analytically and quantitatively. However, being computer literate does not make one a computing expert. That is the trap I think we have fallen into: we can all write computer programs, but we often do not see the difference between what we do and what the pros do. I used to think I was a pretty good programmer – one project from 20 years ago was an 8000-line MATLAB program for the automated analysis of DNA fingerprinting gels. It was complicated and drew on a lot of engineering analysis, and I was really proud of it. But I also realize now that it was nowhere close to modern standards for software engineering in terms of provable correctness, reliability, and maintainability. This is just one example involving programming, and actually today the field of computing is much bigger than computer programming. Computing visionaries today are considering all sorts of things that will be made possible by essentially unlimited and free storage and bandwidth, and that’s a whole lot more than programming – it’s an entirely new world. Many of us in engineering need to be thinking in these terms.

My concluding messages today are that first, engineering and science professionals need to be aware of the importance of computing and embrace the notion that computing its own thing, something that should be considered parallel to, and complementary to, the discipline of engineering. Second, and this is the main message: just because is it easy to get started writing computer programs, that does not mean it is easy to become a computing professional. Computing is a challenging field with far-reaching influence in today’s society, and there is a level of expertise to be reached that requires every bit as much commitment as that required in other fields. Michigan Tech would do well to take the steps necessary to make that fact obvious. Engineering and computing professionals need to have respect for one another, and that respect should be reflected in our research programs, our academic programs, and even in the organization of the university.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann, Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Bruce Mork is One of Top Ten Professors to Know in Power Systems Engineering

Bruce Mork
Bruce Mork

Online Engineering Programs recognizes Professor Bruce A. Mork as one of the most highly skilled educators in the area of power systems engineering. Mork teaches electrical and computer engineering at Michigan Tech, where he was named the Dennis Wiitanen Professor of Electric Power Systems. Currently, his areas of interest include smart grids, power system protection, computer simulation, transients in electrical power systems, nonlinear dynamics and chaos theory, magnetic materials and saturation of transformers, power quality, photovoltaics, and renewable energy, including wind energy and solar energy.

Read more at Online Engineering Programs.

Michigan Tech offers an online Master’s in Electrical Engineering with a focus on power systems.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: That’s A Wrap

We have come to the end of another academic year at Michigan Tech. On Saturday, May 5, our spring commencement ceremony was held at the John MacInnes Ice Arena at the Student Development Complex (SDC), and the place was packed to the rafters with all the graduates and their families and well-wishers. I have been through the Michigan Tech spring commencement now nine times, and I enjoy it as much now as I did the first time. I get to sit on the platform with all the university leadership, the Board of Trustees, and my fellow department chairs, and when it is my turn I get to shake the hands of all our graduates from the ECE Department. When one has been doing this for a while, it starts to become apparent how many lives we touch at a place like Michigan Tech. This certainly must have been on the mind of our president Glenn Mroz, who after 14 years on the job is moving back to the faculty and thus this was his last commencement as master of ceremonies. President Mroz is an outstanding leader who always wears his heart on his sleeve, and we love him for it.

This year the numbers of degrees granted to students in the ECE Department, counting August 2017, December 2017, and May 2018 graduation dates, were: BSEE 83, BSCpE 41, MSEE 82, MSCpE 13, PhD EE 7, PhD CpE 2. That’s a total of 124 undergraduates and 104 graduate students. It is interesting to note that the number of graduate degrees is in the same ballpark as the number of undergraduate degrees, a major shift in the departmental culture over the past couple of decades. One of the things that caught my attention in the commencement program was that, for the spring ceremony, we actually had more MSEE graduates (63) than BSEE graduates (57). I have to imagine that is a first for us, and given current enrollment trends we may not see that again for a long time. Of course, because of the difference in the number of student credit hours required for BS vs. MS degrees, our undergraduate enrollment is still much larger than our graduate enrollment. The number of undergraduate degrees is typically around 20% of our undergraduate enrollment, whereas the number of graduate degrees is closer to 50% of our graduate enrollment.

Commencement not only marks the end of the academic year, but also the beginning of summer. The campus empties out and suddenly everything is quiet, for a while at least. The weather has been sunny and beautiful this May, in stark contrast to all the snow we got in April. Lawns have turned green overnight, it seems, and within a week all the trees will be green too. It’s like we go straight from winter to summer.

Summer didn’t really start for me until this past Monday, when I finally wrapped up the report from the Computer and Information Sciences Working Group and turned it over to Provost Jackie Huntoon. We had a number of recommendations, which is what we were asked for, and in broad terms I can report that the Working Group believes Michigan Tech needs to make some bold moves to enhance its visibility and impact in computing. Beyond that I do not want to go into all the details publicly, as the new university leadership should first have the opportunity to go over the report, give us some feedback, and start the process of deciding where the university should go next. I’ll have a few more opinions to share on computing and engineering in the next few weeks, but for now, I am just happy to have that weight lifted off my shoulders.

One of the things we do in the ECE Department during these lulls is take a moment to express our thanks to our highly capable and dedicated staff. Thursday May 17 was an unofficial “staff appreciation day” when several faculty members and I took the staff out to lunch and we enjoyed some time together. The way this comes about every year is that, on the last Wednesday in April, when we are all running around like headless chickens with end-of-year activities, I suddenly remember that it is Administrative Professionals Day. When that happens I ask if we can just put the celebration off until May, and of course everyone says yes. We are truly blessed in the ECE Department to have clerical, advising, and technical staff that do an amazing job individually and also work together really well as a team. It certainly makes my job a lot easier and I am grateful for their service to Michigan Tech and the ECE Department.

So now, on to the summer. The big thing on my to-do list is to prepare for the roll-out of our new online MSEE program focused on signal processing and communications, due to start in September (see FWF 2/23/2018). While Prof. Tim Schulz is working on a new course in Mathematical and Computational Methods in Engineering, I have volunteered to prepare and teach an online version of our course in Digital Signal Processing. Tim and I are both finding that building an online course to contemporary standards is a lot of work, as it requires us to think about delivering technical content in a whole new way. I am hoping one can teach an old dog new tricks, but I am optimistic, even confident. This is a great summer project and I am looking forward to it – along with everything else that one can find to do in the Copper Country.

Have a great summer everyone!

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann, Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Autonomous Ground Vehicle Funding for Bos and Robinette

Autonomous Vehicle
Autonomous Vehicle

Jeremy Bos (ECE) is the principal investigator on a project that has received a $5,000 research and development contract with the University of Michigan. Darrell Robinette (MEEM/ICC) is the Co-PI on the project “Robust Terrain Identification and Path Planning for Autonomous Ground Vehicles in Unstructured Environments.” The is the first year of a potential three-year project totaling $304,525.

By Sponsored Programs.

Fridays with Fuhrmann: Postcard from Yuma

Prometheus Borealis 20180503

Earlier this week I had the chance to join Professor Jeremy Bos and the students from Michigan Tech’s team Prometheus Borealis as they participated in the Year 1 competitive events in the GM/SAE AutoDrive Challenge at the GM Desert Proving Grounds in Yuma, Arizona.

I wrote about the AutoDrive Challenge when it was first announced that Michigan Tech would be one of the participants, a little over a year ago. The competition is jointly sponsored by General Motors (GM) and the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The concept is to get teams of college students, graduate and undergraduate, to convert a Chevy Bolt into an autonomous vehicle over the three years of the competition, with increasing levels of autonomy and more difficult challenges in each successive year. Unlike most of the SAE collegiate competitions, this competition has little to do with the automotive powertrain; it is focused more on the electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science skills needed to implement the sensors, signal processing, and artificial intelligence to make the car drive itself. To be sure, there are mechanical engineers and other disciplines such as social science represented on the teams as well. It is truly a collaborative effort, consistent with what all our external advisors tell us is the norm in industry today.

There are teams from seven other North American universities in the competition; they are: Michigan State University, Kettering University, the University of Waterloo, the University of Toronto, Texas A&M University, Virginia Tech, and North Carolina A&T State University.

At Michigan Tech the team is hosted in the Robotic Systems Enterprise, one of several multidisciplinary student organizations that serve both an academic and a social function (for more about the Enterprise program see The faculty advisors are Prof. Jeremy Bos from the ECE Department and Prof. Darrell Robinette from the Department of Mechanical Engineering-Engineering Mechanics. At last count there were something like 50 students in RSE and the majority of those, but not all, are on the AutoDrive team.

Retrofitting an automobile to make it autonomous is quite an ambitious task. There are sensors mounted all over the vehicle, including a video camera, one or more LIDARS up on the roof, and multiple radar units positioned around the vehicle at bumper level. The video camera typically sees the same scene a human drive would see. LIDAR stands for Light Detection and Ranging; essentially these use lasers to measure the distance to anything and everything in the field of view. The radars do the same thing, at radio frequencies; they have longer range and can see through conditions like rain, fog, and snow. Some vehicles use ultrasonic sensors as well. All the sensor outputs are digitized and the data are fed into a powerful computer mounted in the trunk. Multiple computer algorithms process all this data and provide electronic controls for the acceleration, steering, and brakes. Nothing to it, right?

For most of this year, the students have been busy with the concept design for the vehicle – how to mount all the sensors and the computers, and designing the overall software architecture for the computer algorithms. As one might imagine, safety plays a critical role in the design of the algorithms. I wish I could say more about the details of the design, but I have not been close enough to the project to comment with authority (I should let the students write one these columns!) Bottom line, the team has a design and has implemented that design with the sensors (except the radars) and computers installed on the vehicle. It’s actually ready to roll, for certain rudimentary autonomous functionality – an impressive accomplishment for a single year.

So on to Yuma for the competition this week. Yuma, Arizona, is a little town, actually somewhat larger than I expected, in the desert Southwest near where California, Arizona, and Mexico come together. 30 miles outside Yuma, about as remote as one can possibly get, is the Yuma Proving Grounds, a gigantic U.S. Army facility of over 1000 square miles which has on it a large vehicle testing facility run by GM. Although it is not exactly convenient for any of the teams in the competition, 3 hours drive from Phoenix, it has everything that is needed for this competition and is fully operational and available this time of year.

I was only able to join the group on Tuesday, and my only role was to provide moral support and get in the way. I had nothing to offer of a technical nature – although maybe that will change next year when they start to use the radars. On Tuesday, the students made an hour-long presentation on their technical concept design, and underwent a technical and safety inspection of the vehicle. There was also a demonstration of a side project on navigation and mapping, which will be integrated into the vehicle in Years 2 and 3, and a presentation on the social responsibility aspects of autonomous vehicles. I was greatly impressed by everything I saw.

Unfortunately, because of my need to get back home for events leading up to commencement, I was unable to stay in Yuma for the actual autonomous driving events, which happen Wednesday through Friday. Since those events are ongoing as of this writing, I will have to wait until next Friday to report on the overall results of the competition. Preliminary indications I am hearing is that the team is doing extremely well.

I am certain my counterparts at the other university will say the same thing about their teams, but I could not be prouder of this group of Huskies and everything they have accomplished this year. I was even more pleased to see how happy Prof. Bos was with the student performance, since leading this group has been a challenging task and a lot more work than he signed up for. If we can do well, pushing the technology forward, educating the next generation of automotive engineers, and making Michigan Tech look good in the process, it will all be worth it.

Stay tuned for the overall results of the Year 1 competition next week. Also, stay tuned for comments on commencement which is scheduled for Saturday. No doubt it will be memorable, being the last commencement exercises with President Glenn Mroz at the helm.

– Dan

Daniel R. Fuhrmann, Dave House Professor and Chair
Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering
Michigan Technological University

Cameron Burke on Autonomous Attitudes

Kyla Valenti and Cameron Burke
Kyla Valenti and Cameron Burke

HOUGHTON — Autonomous vehicles will spell major changes for Americans, including those living in rural areas.

Using Houghton as an area for a case study, a team of Michigan Technological University students set out to investigate possible impacts within rural areas.

The class was tasked with determining environmental, social and economic impacts of Level 4 autonomous vehicles, part of a competition known as the AutoDrive Challenge. Level 4 refers to vehicles that are self-diving but unable to deal with every scenario.

Once the results came in, the team was surprised by the level of neutral responses, with 20-30 percent answering questions as neutral, said Cameron Burke, an electrical and computer engineering student.

Unexpected topics, such as land use and parking situations, were also raised by participants. The team determined there would need to be significant changes to infrastructure, Burke said.

“We found that for autonomous vehicles to be even desirable in a community like this, there would have to be a lot of infrastructure changes,” he said.

Read more at the Mining Gazette, by Kali Katerberg.


Take Me Home, Country Roads: The Future of Autonomous and Electric Vehicles in Rural Areas