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U.S. Department of Defense Funds Six Capstone and VIP Projects in VCU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering

Photo: VCU students and faculty with Department of Defense advisers at the U.S. Army Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) Lab. (Front row, from left): Ümit Özgür, Ph.D.; Randy Jacobs, Ph.D.; John Carli; Ryan Sam Assi; Jessi Shaffer; Ryan Green; Vitaliy Avrutin, Ph.D.; Alex Roberts; Michael Pennie; Robert Klenke, Ph.D., Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D. (Back row, from left): Andrew Fabian, Rupal Varshneya, M.S.; Karen Kelleher; Nibir Dhar, Ph.D; Miguel Snyder, M.S.

Richmond, VA (April 21, 2017) - Student researchers in the VCU School of Engineering Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) have received funding from the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) for projects of interest to the U.S. Army Vision and Electronic Sensors Directorate (NVESD) Lab. These projects include enhancements to unmanned aircraft systems, optically transparent antennas and filters, alternative low-cost power sources and wireless monitoring systems. The funding comes from the NVESD INNOVATIVE DISCOVERY SCIENCE PLATFORM (iDISPLA) initiative, which aims to drive innovation in multiple emerging technologies.

The idea for student-based collaborations grew out of an ECE faculty group’s DOD-funded research. “We were looking for student projects with real-world applications,” said Erdem Topsakal, Ph.D., chair of ECE and principal investigator. “This relationship also opens doors to opportunities for students to learn about engineering careers in the defense industry.” In all, DOD is funding four senior Capstone Design projects, which will be presented at the April 28 Expo. DOD is also supporting two Vertically Integrated Projects (VIP), a program that allows teams of undergraduate and graduate students to collaborate for up to three years.  

As they work alongside faculty advisers, students are also meeting regularly with DOD personnel. Senior Alex Roberts is part of a Capstone team developing vertical take-off and landing capabilities for an unmanned aircraft that will also feature a high-resolution surveillance camera. He said that their system allows the aircraft to maneuver without significant runway space, while the payload chamber gives the camera freedom of movement. Their initial plan to protect the camera with a glass casing was scrapped, however. “We have a regular teleconference with an optical engineer at iDISPLA who said that a glass case would alter the angles of the camera lens,” he said. “So we designed a cage that will protect the payload chamber from things like wind shear and grasses without compromising the camera images,” he said.

Another Capstone team is working with iDISPLA to develop a low-cost, durable and efficient solar cell power source. Their proposed power generation system is based on perovskite cells, named for a crystal structure that absorbs photons and generates electrical energy. Perovskite cells are cheaper to produce than traditional silicon solar cells and have a smaller carbon footprint because they require lower processing temperatures. Perovskite cells can also be fabricated on lightweight and flexible substrates, increasing their potential applications. Visitors to the Expo will get to inspect individual perovskite cells up close and see them in action, according to senior John Carli. “We’ll have cells connected to a series of different colored LEDs, and as the cells are covered and uncovered the LEDs will turn off and on,” he said. “We’ll also show motors spinning at differing speeds depending on how the cells are covered.” The team has also received a Sternheimer Award for their work on this project.

A real-time health monitoring system that also features GPS location tracking is the objective of a VIP team working with iDISPLA. While the military currently has position trackers, those devices can’t monitor health data. The team is designing a device that places red and infrared light emitters and a light sensor against the wearer’s skin to calculate the dissolved oxygen levels within the blood, as well as heart rate and temperature. It transmits data wirelessly, “like a Fitbit, but not tethered to a smartphone, so it’s independent of other devices,” said Ryan Sam Assi, a junior on the team. “They have had a vision for this system for a while, so we are building the base technology,” he said. Monitoring real-time physical changes such as heart rates and sleep patterns during operations will equip military officers to make more informed decisions about strategy and logistics.

VIP team member Jessi Shaffer, a sophomore electrical engineering major, said that the collaboration with NVESD iDISPLA mentors has been especially rewarding. “They have been very supportive of us,” she said. “To my surprise, there haven’t been millions of restrictions. Instead, they have been encouraging us to start where we can and work from there.”

Nibir Dhar, Ph.D., chief scientist with the Army Night Vision & Electronic Sensors Directorate, has been instrumental in developing these projects. Rupal Varshneya, M.S., leads the advising group working with student projects. Group advisers from iDISPLA are Tyler Anderson, M.S.,  John Hodapp, Randolph Jacobs, Ph.D., Karen Kelleher, Justin Markunas, Ph.D., Andre Slonopas, Ph.D. and Miguel Snyder, M.S.