students (left to right)
Dustin Dunkle, Marshall Overcast and Paul Nugent modeled as undergraduates whether wireless systems could link ski-area grooming machines in a mountainous setting. The three are now
WIRELESS TECH HITS SLOPES, GRABS STUDENTS
by Jean Arthur
When the grooming machines roll out of the garage at Montana’s Bridger Bowl Ski Area, radio communication between the groomers and headquarters will no longer break off among the dips and gullies of the 2,000-acre resort, thanks to efforts by engineering students at Montana State University.“Bridger Bowl was selected because it’s the worst possible place (for wireless systems), and we showed it could be done,” said Marshall Overcast, a senior in computer engineering from Sunburst, Mont.
The idea for the wireless communications originated from a Bozeman company, Midtech, Inc., whose specialty is global positioning systems for precision farming--computerized models of a farm that enable precise positioning for tractors. Farmers can monitor fields for complete plow coverage, for example, thereby avoiding double plowing or double planting an area.“We have a preliminary version in place now at Bridger Bowl,” says Richard Wolff, electrical and computer engineering professor. “We tested the global positioning system over the summer with all the varying terrain at Bridger Bowl. It is successful.”
Wolff noted that in addition to collecting data on groomed slopes, ski area managers can design more efficient grooming paths. With the GPS unit in place, cat drivers know exactly where they are on a slope, even in whiteout conditions. The additional wireless network allows the ski area managers to continuously monitor the snow grooming operations for a real-time picture of where each cat is located and what areas of the slopes are groomed.
While wireless communication has many applications locally and globally, MSU researchers and students scour the technology to discover new uses, Wolff said. He and his students have several wireless projects from wireless mobile robots used to teach undergraduates practical application of electrical engineering, to wireless gaming to be built into airplane cabins.
Inside the electrical circuits lab, students in Introduction to Electrical Fundamentals learn about their chosen major by assembling six-inch-tall robots.“The robots are what make the class for me,” said sophomore Kurt Wood of Ronan. “At first I had to learn to solder the parts. Once I got that down, I learned how the circuits worked. It’s the best part of my classes. Creating the robots makes the math and the lectures all come together for practical experience.”
Rob Maher, professor of electrical engineering, helped integrate the robots into the introductory course funded by a Montana Space Grant Consortium Educational Enhancement grant. He realized that eager new students interested in electrical engineering and computer engineering quickly discovered that the first year of college was filled with required courses and almost no engineering courses.
“Teaching freshman is particularly interesting and challenging because it can be hard for a professor to remember what it was like to learn the basic concepts for the first time,” Maher said. “After seeing the robot—and the reaction of students who saw the prototype—I was convinced that this was an idea worth building upon.”
“The robots make class fun,” said Gabriel Guillen, a sophomore from Dillon. “It’s a great introduction for the course, great hands-on experience, and the robots get kids motivated to keep going. During our senior year, we will get to program the robot to do different things.”
The “different things” are all part of Wolff’s plan. As the Gilhousen Telecommunications Chair at MSU, Wolff focuses student projects and research on opportunities to use wireless and to address communication needs unique to Montana and sparsely populated regions.
Karen and Klein Gilhousen gave $5 million to the College of Engineering to establish the chair in 2001 and to provide Gilhousen Scholarships for the electrical and computer engineering department. Gilhousen is the cofounder and vice president of Qualcomm, Inc., a Fortune 500 company.“Much of the wireless research and technology development is focused on a different set of problems, typically urban and metro areas, and the solutions do not necessarily apply in Montana,” Wolff said. “In fact, areas like Montana are often overlooked, thus the late arrival of cell phone services and low penetration of high-speed Internet access. There is a vacuum, which translates into opportunities for research, education, technology development and business.”
With this in mind, Wolff concentrates efforts to identify the gaps and establish educational, research and industry relationships at MSU to fill the voids. Additional projects include an NSF-funded exploration of ways to provide traveler information services in rural and remote areas; industry funding from Advanced Acoustic Concepts to exploit emerging wireless technologies for high-speed, long range sensor networks; and National Science Foundation funding for wireless communication networks for rural areas. “My approach has been to maximize engagement of university colleagues, students and local industry,” Wolff said.
He developed new courses in wireless systems for the College of Engineering’s curriculum, sponsored and supervised a variety of electrical engineering senior design projects exploiting wireless technologies, created collaborations with faculty in several departments and forged strong working relationships with local industry partners.
“The future of wireless technology is that it will continue to grow,” Wolff said. “A billion and a half people, one-quarter of the world’s population, use cell phones, for example. Wireless is a huge growth opportunity for business, for home use and for MSU’s students to understand the technology and create new technology.” -