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Innovators at work and in the classroom

Sensor Sensation

A MacArthur award-winning researcher brings excitement to the classroom.

Shwetak Patel’s technology can be used for energy and water monitoring, home security, and elder care.By Alison Buki

The 50 students who enrolled in Shwetak Patel’s Embedded Microcomputer Systems class last winter could not have expected to draw a public spotlight. But once they rose to his challenge, building and programming controllers for a fleet of remotely piloted quadrocopters, a video of their drones’ successful flight leapt from YouTube into the local media.

Engaging students in exciting practical applications is the best way to teach advanced engineering concepts, argues Patel, a three-year assistant professor of computer science and electrical engineering at the University of Washington. Taking cues from his own research, which focuses on novel applications for wireless sensing technology, Patel overhauled the traditional platform for an embedded systems class. Instead of working with small motors and LEDs, he had students tackle the four-rotor helicopter drones project. “It taught the students all the basic concepts...they had to learn how to write embedded code, how to do wireless,” Patel explains. Captivated, the students taught themselves concepts outside the scope of their coursework – a professor’s dream come true. “Their code had to work really well or the thing wouldn’t fly,” he says. Emerging as stellar programmers – and documentary filmmakers – the students gained enough attention with their final demonstration for the course to draw overflow enrollment the following quarter.

Patel’s innovations reach well beyond the classroom and recently earned him a $500,000 no-strings-attached John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship. The “genius” award caps a stunning series of achievements for a 29-year-old that include founding and later selling a startup company, Zensi; a 2011 Microsoft Research Faculty Fellowship; and two National Science Foundation fellowships administered by ASEE: the Graduate Research Fellowship and the East Asia and Pacific Summer lnstitutes research program. He has also won junior faculty and research-adviser awards.

Like his teaching, Patel’s pioneering research is strongly invested in expanding the practical applications of modern computing technologies. He is best known for his work developing sophisticated, user-friendly energy sensors for homes and offices. Patel’s unique technology uses advanced algorithms to determine how much energy each household device is consuming by picking up individual activity patterns. By simply installing a few wireless sensors, residents can tell which of their appliances is using the most energy and can monitor water and electricity consumption throughout the day. The technology can also be used to monitor human motion within a building, with applications ranging from home security to elder care. In bestowing the genius award, the MacArthur Foundation said Patel, while envisioning cutting-edge tools, “devises elegant, simple solutions that dramatically reduce the cost of implementation.”

An Alabama native who earned a bachelor’s degree and a doctorate in computer science from the Georgia Institute of Technology, Patel is currently consulting with Belkin, the company that acquired Zensi in 2010, to help commercialize in-home energy monitoring technology. Belkin is running a pilot study in Chicago and may have the technology on the market as soon as next year.

But now for the question on everybody’s mind: How will Patel use his MacArthur grant? “I have some ideas,” Patel says, excited at the prospect of working on projects that might not interest traditional funding sources. “I’m looking into building low-cost versions of energy monitors, and [sensors] for a variety of health applications.” One such application, he told the Birmingham News, could enable patients with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to monitor their lung capacity by coughing into the microphone on a cellphone. He may even start a nonprofit organization with the goal of helping low-income families take advantage of the technologies he has developed.


Alison Buki is an ASEE staff writer.




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