By: Dominic Sanfilippo – Staff Writer
The word “radar” usually conjures images of television weather forecasts, a map of red dots in the control room of a submarine or a police officer clocking drivers’ speeds on a highway. However, what if radar could be used in larger, more complex and creative ways to improve human life? The University of Dayton’s Mumma Radar Lab’s researchers spend many hours thinking and working toward that exact goal.
Since reopening under the guise of both the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and the Institute for Development and Commercialization of Advanced Sensor Technology [IDCast] of the UD Research Institute in March 2014, the Radar Lab and its growing team of graduate students and researchers have received tens of millions of dollars in grants to use its cutting-edge technology to explore the many possibilities of radar. Michael Wicks, Ph.D., Lorenzo Lo Monte, Ph.D., and Donald Kessler, Ph.D., all known experts in the interdisciplinary field of radar, direct the lab, which has been around UD for decades.
The Mumma Lab, nestled down a back corridor on the second floor of Kettering Labs, is easy to miss at first. Chalkboards full of scribbled equations cover the walls above computer terminals and posters of research proposals, blueprints and various scientific instruments are scattered around the room. Upon entering, the eye is immediately drawn to four large, blue robotic arms, which tower over everything else. Fastened to the floor several meters away from one another, they create an open space in the center, resembling a rudimentary time machine.
The robotic arms, while they don’t to beam people into the future, are still capable of extraordinary work. They emit low frequency, nondestructive radio waves that, upon being directed at surfaces or objects, can pinpoint and analyse the “data” of real-world objects on a remarkably detailed level.
“These [arms] emit waves in a healthy, noninvasive way. In contrast, doctors recommend that you only get a medical X-ray every three months or so, due to the potential harm it can do to the human body,” Nihad Alfaisali, a doctoral student who grew up in Baghdad, Iraq, said. “With this technology, we don’t have to worry about that when we’re working around the lab.”
One promising area of focus for the lab is applying tomography, or the process of creating three-dimensional, internally detailed images of objects or fields using waves, in new ways.
“We can use these waves to create images of deep roots under trees, or the intertwining status of crops beneath a field, down to their compositional and elemental makeup,” Yasar Guzel, another Ph.D. student who previously worked in Turkey, said.
The radar team estimates its lab is more proficiently than almost any other laboratory of its kind in the nation.
“The potential applications and uses of this radar technology are endless,” Larrell Walters, the head of the UDRI Sensors System Division and the director of IDCast, said. “What if you’re trying to determine how many crops to plant, or are trying to figure out the exact chemical makeup of objects in tunnels that are being smuggled beneath the American border? This technology can help farmers, for instance, decide to use pesticides on only this part of the field, and realize that only that part needs fertilizer. It’ll maximize the output, be more efficient, and will be far more environmentally friendly.”
A major area where emerging radar technology is being applied is in unmanned aerial vehicles [UAV’s] sometimes referred to as drones. Walters and the radar researchers stressed that the problem-solving possibilities and benefits to humanity of radar must be remembered when considering the potentially harmful effects of this technology and research, such as drones being used in dangerous ways.
“Could there be potential misuses of unmanned vehicles? Yes. Are there misuses of cell phone videos and Google Glass everyday? Yes,” Walters said. “Humans will misuse technology, but do you throw away all the good just because some bad ensues? People crash cars-would you outlaw cars because someone gets in a car accident?”
“We have to figure out how to integrate these technologies and our use of them so we can receive the benefits and safely manage the ways in which they could be misused. For example, religion is something we have a lot of respect for, hold in high regard, and treasure here at UD, but when it is sometimes misused around the world, it can be dangerous. It’s similar with radar, UAV’s, and all the rest.”
Walters pointed to the safety certification program at Sinclair Community College, a partner in IDCast, as well as the verification and validation work done in the Mumma Lab that endeavors to ensure that any technologies using sophisticated radar are secure before being applied in the real world, as some ways in which the UD research team works toward safe, ethical use of its knowledge.
Around the world, billions of radio waves bounce off one another, constantly creating fields, and the Mumma team is thinking about how to navigate and use radar in our increasingly wave-driven world.
“Remember ‘The Dark Knight,’ when Batman uses the machine in Fox’s lab to scan the city to find the Joker? That idea is basically rooted in the same sort of [radar technology] that we’re examining,” Alfaisali said.
Alfaisali described how, during the war in Iraq, people eating lunch at roadside cafes would regularly not be able to use their cell phones and other devices for a few minutes after American tanks would roll by. This was due to the radar jammers that American troops would deploy to counter the improvised explosive devices [IED’s] that were often set off by insurgents using innocuous devices like cell phones. This rather well-known military use of radar is one “early glimpse” Alfaisali said, of how it could be employed, and counter-employed, in the future.
Given the rapid growth and success of the lab in its short life span, Walters and the doctoral radar students have high hopes for the future of the Mumma Lab, IDCast and the larger UDRI. “In the eight years since IDCast was set up, we’ve helped create 345 jobs and had a $400 million impact on the state of Ohio,” Walters said. “This is something that’s had a huge impact on not only the University of Dayton, the Miami Valley region and Ohio, but the entire nation. We’ve been starting to receive international recognition. This is only the beginning.”