MESH recently opened a suite of laboratories that will keep ISE on the cutting edge of research in the realms of drone technology, drug and toxicity screening, “smart” fibers, and biomedical systems. The effort also brings ISE labs from around the IU campus under one roof, providing a central hub for research.
“We’re going to have a level of collaboration that hasn’t previously been possible because we’ve been spread out around campus,” says Martin Swany, the chair of the ISE program at Luddy. “That fact that the engineering labs will be housed together under one roof at MESH will create more interactions, and it will benefit students who will have an opportunity to discuss their ideas and findings with their peers.”
The Bondesson Lab, led by Maria Bondesson, associate chair of ISE, focuses on identifying toxic chemicals among environmental pollutants and deciphering the mechanisms by which they act. Bondesson and her team study zebrafish in various stages of development to learn how they might be impacted by different substances introduced into their environment.
The fish facility previously was housed in a small room in Jordan Hall, a biology building on the southern edge of campus.
“The facility at Jordan Hall was quite small,” Bondesson says. “The new fish facility at MESH is roughly double the size. That means I can have many more fish, which will allow us to run more tests at once and expand our research.”
Bondesson’s space in MESH also includes a large shared lab with James Glazier, a professor of intelligent systems engineering, and the increased space also means more room for their equipment, including fluorescence and confocal microscopes.
“We can see very detailed things in living fish—in my case—or in cells, to study embryonic development in real-time,” Bondesson says. “We’ve been able to design what the microscope rooms look like to make it more efficient.”
The lab also includes a chemical room and a cell culture room.
“It’s a perfect space for my work,” Bondesson says. “It brings everything together, and it shows a nice commitment to our research from the Luddy School.”
Another new lab at MESH is sure to bring plenty of buzz.
The Vehicle Autonomy and Intelligence Lab focuses on developing methodologies that enhance the autonomy and intelligence of robotic systems such as unmanned ground, aerial, and aquatic vehicles. The variation in the environments in which the drones will operate creates a challenge and a demand for a unique lab space.
VAIL will feature two levels. The bottom level will provide space for a water testing chamber. There, researchers will be able to test simple drone behaviors and sensor performance in water.
“It’s like a mini pool,” said Lantao Liu, an assistant professor of intelligent systems engineering and the director of VAIL. “What we see in the air and in the water is different. There is more darkness in water, and there are particles in water, plus there are issues with refraction and reflection. They all have to be considered when developing methods for controlling these drones. Then, you have to test sonar and ultrasound equipment to image the environment. If there are obstacles or something in front of the robot, we want the drone to “see” it and reconstruct it, and ultimately know how to avoid it.”
Autonomous Underwater Vehicles have existed for years, but they’re getting ever more sophisticated. They can be used for search and rescue operations that allow humans to search a larger area with better vision, especially in murky water, and sonar applications can look for wreckage and pinpoint what dangers may lie around wreckage. AUVs also can be used for agriculture. They can be used to monitor underwater agriculture, such as clam or seaweed farms, and AUVs can monitor water quality.
The upper floors of VAIL will serve multiple purposes. The top floor includes workspace for studentsas well as space for observers to watch and conduct tests of flying drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. UAV research will be conducted in a 1,000-square-foot flight arena that will include camera-assisted navigation devices that will allow for extremely precise flying.
VAIL will focus on two types of drones for flight. One is a larger UAV that normally doesn’t fly inside because they’re too big and heavy, which makes them dangerous for flying in indoor environments. The larger UAVs that carry multiple sensors such as cameras can be used for infrastructure inspection. VAIL also work with small UAVs which are roughly the size of the palm of a hand to research the multi-robot and swarm coordination.
“Those drones can be used for testing flight behavior, such as control performance,” Liu says. “How well does it perform in flight? How does it perform different behaviors, such as autonomous obstacle avoidance? It allows us to decide how aggressive flight plans can be, and we can play very complicated trajectories and test how well it performs indoors. The camera system will replace the GPS system indoors because GPS generally won’t work in the indoor environments. But the camera system is also more precise, and the accuracy of our flight plan can be within millimeters.”
Thanks to the flight arena, the UAVs can fly regardless of the time of day or the weather. They also will be able to fly in swarms where multiple UAVs will work together in formation, an application that has already been showcased at major events such as the Olympics and the Super Bowl. Most importantly, the tests conducted by the smaller UAVs can be translated and applied to larger, outdoor UAVs, and a combination of GPS and camera-assisted navigation, plus sensors, can create UAVs that can be used in a variety of applications.
For instance, air quality can be tested using UAVs, and they can be used for monitoring crops, assessing soil moisture, and judging when crops are ready to be harvested.
“People might not be able to tell the exact time crops should be picked, but drone cameras can,” Liu says. “For example, there are many grapes on one vineyard, but the drone images and AI algorithms can estimate how much yield there can be from certain sections of a vineyard at different times. And then you can focus your resources and maximize the yield. A drone can also water crops or deploy pesticides.”
The UAVs also can fly to and enter buildings, which is critical in disaster situations. In the event of a bombing or some sort of structural collapse, UAVs can be deployed to assess the integrity of a building and pinpoint the locations of victims while also mapping the condition of the interior of the structure to provide more information for responders.
The use of artificial intelligence will allow the vehicles to “learn” how to react to various obstacles and situations, providing them with the ability to be deployed in the field with greater success. The same systems can be also used with a third type of drone, Underground Vehicles, or UGVs.
“We don’t have to deploy a human inside a building that might be unsafe,” Liu says. “The same goes for underground or subterranean situations, such as a mine collapse. If there are people trapped inside, we have to assess the situation for emergency personnel. The drone can fly or we can deploy an underground rover, and sensors can build a three-dimensional image and an accurate map. It’s more than just pictures or measurements. There are no humans in there, and the drone has to be able to do the task by itself, and we need artificial intelligence for that.”
The design of VAIL incorporates Liu’s input, and the customized space has been designed to optimize the lab experience.
“I’m very excited about it,” Liu says. “I’ve talked to colleagues from places like MIT, Carnegie Mellon, JPL and other world-class researchers of drones, and I’ve talked to them about the pitfalls to avoid. We’re learning from others to have a design that incorporates the most positive aspects of a research space possible.”
VAIL’s location provides it with an advantage over other similar facilities.
“This lab will be very different from other labs in the United States and worldwide,” Liu says. “I’m working on different kinds of vehicles. We’re connecting air, ground, and sea. There is a unique opportunity to build a system that connects different types of vehicles. The IU Bloomington area is unique from other universities in urban areas because we have lakes nearby. We have caves nearby. We have wide-open spaces to test aerial vehicles. It makes research much easier and more efficient. MESH is walking distance to a lake, to the forest, to farmlands. There are so many areas and space for use to research.”
The FAMES Lab engineers fibers and fabrics embedding ensembles of nano-transducers and sensors that allow them to interact with their surroundings and feed input back to computers. Using 3D printers, materials of the fiber preform, such as semiconductors and metals, are arranged to the geometry of the devices with the desired functionality. The preform is then fed into a furnace of a tower, where it melts into a viscous liquid, and then, like a honey, is drawn down two stories to create fibers that can be integrated into fabric.
“The FAMES Lab is designed for full vertical integration including design, material processing, fiber preform production, fiber drawing, and the characterization of fibers,” says Gumennik, who is an assistant professor of intelligent systems engineering and director of the FAMES Lab. “These materials have active functionality. If you’re wearing a t-shirt, it can keep you warm, but it can’t sense your stress level and give you a massage if you’re stressed. The fibers I’m designing will have active functionalities that will serve a host of purposes, from quantum computing to regenerative medicine.”
The FAMES Lab includes a 27-foot tall fiber-draw tower, a pair of optical labs, two preform-fabrication labs, an additive manufacturing lab, and a small maker space for electronic and mechanical assembly works.
“Most of the spaces in my lab are designed as clean rooms,” Gumennik says. “We build with materials that are used in clean rooms, and air filtration, pressure balancing, and humidity control are part of those spaces. We use 3D printing to create the preforms before we make the fiber, and we have 3D printing that incorporates those fibers after they have been drawn. It’s almost like recursive manufacturing. You 3D print with the fiber that was created from a preform that was 3D printed. And because I designed the lab, I had the opportunity to optimize the design for the workflow. It’s different from getting a lab that is ready to go and randomly throwing equipment into the space that you’re assigned. I could group processes by the safety, cross-contamination, and infrastructure constraints.”
The fibers also can be used in bioprinting and even quantum computing applications.
“For instance, you can 3D print an ear,” Gumennik says. “You lay it out with bio ink to form a model that is anatomically accurate, meaning, it looks like an ear, but it’s not an ear. If you dissect it on a micro-level, you’ll see a soup of hydrogel with cells inside. It’s not a realistic tissue in any way. It doesn’t have blood vessels, nerves, cartilage, or muscles.
“What I do with fibers is provide those functionalities artificially from within. They can be fibers with internal microfluidic networks and sensing devices that serve as microvasculature and innervation respectively, which promote and monitor the growth of natural tissue structures from within.”
The FAMES Lab is a flexible research facility, which opens the possibility of the lab being contracted to entities outside of the Luddy School. Because it is not a production facility, the parameters of the machines are not rigid. Machines are not designed to do only one job as is often the case in production facilities. Companies that want to create and test a prototype of some product are invited to partner with the FAMES Lab. This open business model would enable local start-ups to improve the chances of successfully breaking into a market by first testing the feasibility of their ideas.
“Here, you can play with your ideas in a protected environment,” Gumennik says.
The FAMES Lab and its focus on fibers is unique, and there isn’t another lab like it in the Midwest. It is expected to draw attention from the Department of Defense and other research entities, which in the long run is expected to create self-sustaining funding for the lab.
A fourth ISE lab in the MESH complex, the Intelligent Biomedical Systems Lab directed by Assistant Professor of Intelligent Systems Engineering Feng Guo, will focus on the development of novel intelligent devices, sensors, and systems based on microfluidics, acoustics, electronics, and materials for address the problems in translational medicine and life sciences.
Guo is excited about working with the other labs in MESH and how the convenience of the location will help push his research forward.
“Bringing together the animal facility, the confocal microscopes, and other spaces will be very helpful,” Guo says. “It will allow us to conduct our research on cancer immunotherapy, neuroscience, biomedical devices and systems, and so much more.”
For instance, Guo and his colleagues have developed a method to study cell-to-cell communication by first positioning cells using acoustic waves. The surface acoustic wave (SAW)-based technology allows them to be positioned with precision, and they can be kept in that state to make it easier to study their communication. Understanding the mechanism by which cells communicate will allow researchers to develop approaches to cancer treatment, immunological interactions, and more.
“Combining an acoustic device with artificial intelligence will allow us to create unique bioengineering technology,” Guo says. “It will allow my lab to answer many challenging questions that others cannot being to access.”
Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering resources and social media channels