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Elizabeth Basha working on a quadrocoptor with two students.

Professor Basha works on a quadrocoptor with her students.

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Dead battery on a bridge sensor? Send in a drone.

Feb 27, 2015

Disasters such as bridge collapses do happen, but Elizabeth Basha wants to keep them from happening because of a dead battery.

An assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at University of the Pacific, Basha is completing research funded by a $100,000 National Science Foundation grant that examines how unmanned aerial vehicles could be used to recharge batteries on wireless sensor networks such as those that track potentially devastating structural changes on bridges.

"These wireless sensor networks are being put on bridges to monitor them," Basha said. "But bridges don't always have grid power, and you can't install a wind farm or solar panels on a bridge. Because these devices have limited battery life, we're proposing using unmanned aerial vehicles - quadcopter robots - to fly out and recharge them."

Basha began working with wireless sensor networks while a Ph.D. student at MIT, impressed by their potential to solve human problems.

"It's really hard to have enough people in enough locations to track potential structural changes on bridges," she said. "The sensors can provide the information so that people can spend their time analyzing the data and predicting events."

But only if the sensors have power. Currently, bridge sensors in urban areas may be connected to power grids or solar panels. But in remote areas, batteries on wireless sensor networks must be manually changed.

To address this problem, Basha and a colleague at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln are developing a charger using wireless inductive power transfer, like that used in cell phone charging mats. This would allow a drone (she prefers to call them quadcopters) to hover near a sensor and charge it in about a minute.

The National Science Foundation grant has enabled Basha to purchase robotic equipment for her research -- and to support student work.

"It's a win-win for the students," she said. "They get this great research opportunity, and the grant pays for their education."

The opportunity to work with students brought Basha back to University of the Pacific, where she earned an undergraduate degree in computer engineering, rather than to a career in industry or a teaching position at a large research institution.

"I decided I wanted to teach, and at a place where teaching was really valued," Basha said. In classes such as Sensor Networks for Engineering Systems, she now uses examples from her research to discuss application of these sensors.

"It's fun to teach students how to think about problems and focus on the bigger picture," she said.

And for Basha, the big picture is applying engineering to societal concerns. For example, she thinks wireless sensor networks might also be used in other disaster mitigation applications, such as flood monitoring.

"I like to explore new frontiers and find ways of combining engineering systems with helping people," she said.

About University of the Pacific

Established in 1851 as the first chartered institution of higher education in California, University of the Pacific prepares students for professional and personal success through rigorous academics, small classes, and a supportive and engaging culture. Widely recognized as one of the most beautiful private university campuses in the West, the Stockton campus offers more than 80 undergraduate majors in arts and sciences, music, business, education, engineering and computer science, and pharmacy and health sciences. The university's distinctive Northern California footprint also includes a campus in San Francisco, home to Pacific's Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry, and in Sacramento, home to the Pacific McGeorge School of Law. For more information, visit www.pacific.edu.

Media contact

Keith Michaud | kmichaud@pacific.edu | 209.946.3275 (office) 209. 470.3206 (cell)

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