UVA Faculty Work to Advance the Internet of Things


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“Those companies buy a membership to be part of that group and they advise you on research projects and help to steer you in the direction of technologically relevant things that you should be trying,” Hopkins said. “These are problems they are looking to solve, and we have capabilities and expertise here.”

Ghosh noted all four of the outside partners at the UVA site are military-related, but said there are consumer firms involved in the centers as well, including Allegro, Corning and Boeing.

“We are doing what is called ‘pre-competitive research,’” Ghosh said. “For example, a particular industry is interested in a particular product and wants us to test some components or concepts that are critical for them to understand this path through transition. And our goal is to work with industry to try to find what their needs are.”

Each outside partner pays approximately $50,000 per year for each project, while the universities reduce their overhead down to 10 percent, which works out to about one graduate student per project. In addition, NSF provides money to allow operational costs such as organizing biannual meetings.

“Each project cost is not large enough to build a product, but it is large enough to test some components, do a proof-of-concept analysis, and give industry some ideas about the next steps toward productive allotment,” Ghosh said. “And one of the ideas of the [Industry-University Cooperative Research Center] is ultimately they want to see things like patents, invention disclosures and start-up spinoffs, which take these precompetitive concepts further.”

The students also see an opportunity for employment.

“Companies are very active and outgoing in saying it is a successful project if they can hire a well-trained Ph.D. student who can come work with them, either as an intern or join their company afterward,” Hopkins said. “They are looking for recruitment.

“If you think about it, for a company, this is a no-brainer way to recruit. You basically groom a student for however long you are going to be funding them and they are up to speed on your technology. They’ve been doing cutting-edge research on the company’s technology.”

All the members get access to all the research, while working closely with the researchers they have funded.

“The entire research portfolio of the three universities together is over $1 million per year, so for $50,000 apiece, member organizations are getting access to the non-exclusive, royalty-free intellectual property – knowledge basically of about $1 million or more of research, plus access to several faculty and students,” Ghosh said. “That is the return on investment for them. And more than 90 percent of the money goes directly into research.”

Some of the research the professors and the graduate students conduct relates to energy transfer across the interfaces of the nano-scale hardware.

“If you look at the chips under an electron microscope, you have billions and billions of little transistors, billions and billions of little calculators,” Hopkins said. “And all of those calculators are connected together onto an integrated circuit. Every one of those connection points is an interface. Every one of those connection points is impeding heat transfer from where it is generated in the calculator to the eventual heat sink, which is a microscopic part of this device. We want to help manipulate interfaces, design interfaces based on their atomic structure to get rid of that thermal resistance.”

Hopkins’ research has been focused on reducing the resistance to heat transfer at the interfaces.

“When you put two materials together, the interface between those two materials gives a large thermal resistance,” Hopkins said. “So there are a large amount of temperature increases that can occur at interfaces.”

But surprisingly, one company in the consortium wanted more heat, not less, because it helped with the company’s sensor performance. Hopkins said the frequent contact between the companies and researchers can change the direction of some research.

“With the interaction with the companies, you end up having this dialogue, this back and forth, and realize solution pathways you never thought were important before,” Hopkins said.

There are six funded MIST research projects at UVA. In addition to Hopkins working on interfaces, Ghosh is working with Mircea Stan, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, on neuron-inspired algorithms that would be able to learn, predict outcomes and make decisions.

“It is brain-inspired computing ideas where we have signals with significant and meaningful time-varying components, for example in video data,” said Samiran Ganguly, a research scientist in Ghosh’s group. “We have set up a machine-learning and signal-processing framework that can filter dynamic distortions/noise from images, recognize user-defined features and then track them in a video stream by learning and predicting long-term patterns in time.

“Video processing for IoT applications goes beyond automated cars and drones to a wide range of fields, such as developing tools for efficient and semi-automated analysis of vital bio-physical signals, and creating early warning systems for health care delivery, such as early prediction of heart attacks, glycemic shock and neurological disorders, based on these tools.”

Joe Campbell, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, is working on silicon carbide-based avalanche photo diodes, which refers to a few electrons that can create a lot of electrons to ramp up sensitivity and detect laser-induced fluorescence from biological agents.

Nikhil Shukla, an assistant professor in the electrical and computer engineering department, is working on reconfigurable antennas for wireless applications using phase change materials.

Steven Bowers, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, is working on high-dynamic-range power amplifiers for ultra-low power devices such as sensors.

The opportunities of the MIST Center are open to all researchers at the University.

“It is a constant recruiting process,” Ghosh said. “We have all these different topics and we are constantly sending out messages to faculty. It is not meant to be exclusive. It’s open to any faculty member who believes his or her research could be of interest in this conduit for bringing industry and academia together and who can bring interested industry partners to the table.”

Ghosh said faculty members are alerted to MIST Center meetings and any with a project can submit it.

“And the industries are going to prioritize, saying this is the one we are going to fund, and those are the ones we don’t want to fund at the moment,” Ghosh said. “And that is determined partly by interest and partly by available dollars. But the center facilitates this intersection between industry guys and our faculty and our students.”

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