Office of the Vice President for Global Communications

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Record Update exclusive

Michigan tops OSU in bomb-detection competition

Suicide bombers carrying improvised explosive devices (IEDs) scatter through a crowded town square. Using technology and engineering principles, you must determine where they are hidden.

From left, Nilton Renno and U-M's bomb-detection team, Steve Boland, Andry Supian, Brian Hale, Michael Shin, Ashwin Lalendran, Vitaly Shatkovsky, Kevin Huang, and Bruce Block. (Photo Courtesy of Ashwin Lalendran)

That was the problem posed to undergraduate engineering students competing June 2-3 against counterparts from The Ohio State University in the inaugural Scarlet and Blue Design Challenge 2009. The competition was sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory and presented at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base near Dayton, Ohio.

In a 100-by-100-foot simulated square, roughly 50 people milled about, and six carried or wore simulated IEDs. The U-M team was declared the winner for its solution to place sensors in traffic cones throughout the square to detect the explosive devices.

The Air Force wants to talk further with the students about their research, says Ashwin Lalendran, one of four students in Nilton Renno’s Engineering 450 class, Multidisciplinary Engineering Design, which was part of the seven-member U-M team.

Renno says it felt good to win. “The Air Force said they were creative and the solution was very flexible, very adaptable to any type of environment and technology. It’s scalable — you can increase the number of sensors in the network and you can include any kind of sensor,” he says. The OSU team presented a solution combining radar and metal sensing.

Renno’s Engineering 450 class is a new multidisciplinary course in which teams of students from engineering and science departments work together on project design and prototype fabrication. Industry experts mentor the design teams and give guest lectures.

“The class covers systems and engineering principles and working on difficult and ill-defined problems using multiple engineering disciplines — electrical engineers; computer science engineers; aerospace; and atmospheric ocean and space science,” Lalendran says. “We had representatives from five different majors on our team.”

To the four students recruited from his class, Renno added three team members from outside the class to build hardware and software applications.

On the first day of the competition, the U-M and OSU teams presented their solutions separately in verbal presentations, and on the second day they put those applications into practice.

“The basics of our solution was orthogonal sensing — using multiple sensors to localize the suspect,” Lalendran says. “The core of our solution was metal detection, with sensors deployed in the top of traffic cones that communicated wirelessly to our command center.”

The value to students is practical experience. “The students work on real-life problems,” Renno says.

The Air Force approached U-M with the idea for the competition in the fall, and Renno picked a team in January. The Air Force provided a $50,000 budget, which the team used to pay for hardware and some consultant work from the U-M Space Physics Research Laboratory, among other expenses.

“They had to make decisions and control the budget and they have to solve the problem,” Renno says.

“Every single one of the students got the experience of working on problems to come up with solutions that could make a difference,” Lalendran says.

“Undergraduates typically don’t get practical hands-on engineering experience. We had to be innovative, and I think we delivered thanks to the resources at the University of Michigan,” he says, adding the ROTC detachment at the university also contributed expertise.