Pitt | Swanson Engineering

Since its founding in 1893 by two legends, George Westinghouse and Reginald Fessenden, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Pitt has excelled in education, research, and service.  Today, the department features innovative undergraduate and graduate programs and world-class research centers and labs, combining theory with practice at the nexus of computer and electrical engineering, for our students to learn, develop, and lead lives of impact.





Sep
18
2018

Pitt Robotics Club Lands Top Awards at Aerial Robotics Competition

Electrical & Computer, Student Profiles

ATLANTA (September 18, 2018) … The University of Pittsburgh Robotics & Automation Society (RAS) won three of six awards, including Highest Overall Score, at the American Venue of AUVSI Foundation’s International Aerial Robotics Competition. The collegiate competition challenges students to complete a mission described by founder Robert C. Michelson as “impossible at the time, but technically feasible.”“The competition gives you an excuse to explore the greatest things in technology applicable to drones today, and you also make new things to advance the field,” says Levi Burner, a Pitt RAS team leader. “It gives you a place to test out your ideas and see what you came up with compared to other people from all over the world.”The Georgia Institute of Technology hosted the competition for the American Venue, which took place between July 31 and August 2. A month later, the Asia/Pacific Venue held its competition in Beijing, China. This year, a team from Zhejiang University satisfied all the Mission 7 requirements and ended the mission.“The challenge was the same as last year, but the organizers changed the standards for who was allowed to compete. Last year there were 13 teams [at the American Venue], and this year there were five. In June, we had to send the judges a video demonstrating the basic capabilities you need to compete before getting invited back,” explained Aaron Miller, a Pitt RAS team leader.Mission 7 required teams to demonstrate several autonomous drone behaviors while attempting to herd ground robots out of a designated area. The ground robots, which resembled Roombas, moved around a gymnasium floor and changed direction when a drone blocked their path or touched a button on its back. Mission 7 first took place in 2014 and repeated for the past four years at the two venues.The Pitt team also took home awards for Best System Design and Best Technical Paper. The combination of the technical paper, a presentation to judges, the drone design, and in-flight performance contributed to the award for Highest Overall Score in the robotics competition. Credit: Pitt RAS The Pitt RAS team comprised about 35 members and was represented at the competition by (depicted above from left to right): Andrew Shehab Saba, computer engineering, senior Liam Berti, electrical engineering and computer science, graduated Levi Burner, electrical engineering, senior Aaron Miller, physics and computer science, graduated Ritesh Misra, computer engineering, senior Evan Becker, electrical engineering, sophomore Patrick Snyder, electrical engineering, junior A Pitt team competed in 2017 and consisted of many of the same members. They won the Best System Design and Highest Overall Score awards. Other competitors at the American Venue during Mission 7 included Georgia Institute of Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Purdue University, University of Louisville, University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Texas at Austin. The Pitt RAS team also received support from Samuel Dickerson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering; Jim Lyle and Bill McGahey, co-founders of SERC (Student Electronic Resource Center); and the Swanson School of Engineering’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering under the direction of Dr. Alan George. They were provided a practice space by a local non-profit organization. “In exchange for us doing some demonstrations and volunteering in the community, the Northside Partnership Group agreed to let us use their space, which was very generous of them,” said Andrew Saba, Director of Outreach for Pitt RAS. “We practiced late at night on a basketball court in an old school building. It was an interesting experience, and we wouldn’t have been able to accomplish nearly as much as we did if it wasn’t for them and support from the electrical and computer engineering department.” ###
Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer
Sep
7
2018

Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering adds three new faculty this fall

Electrical & Computer

PITTSBURGH (September 7, 2018) … Three interdisciplinary junior faculty join the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering this fall in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. David Anderson, Masoud Barati and Liang Zhan were appointed Assistant Professors by Alan George, the Department Chair, R&H Mickle Endowed Chair, and Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Swanson School. “As a Department, we are focused on strengthening our core academic and research programs at the nexus of computer and electrical engineering, as well as expanding into new territories within ECE and across the Swanson School,” Dr. George said. “David, Masoud and Liang are looking forward to collaborating with other programs at Pitt, especially on innovative health and energy systems, and so I think they will be quick to contribute to the University’s focus on pioneering research and excellence in education.” David AndersonAfter receiving his bachelor's degree in 2012 from Colorado State University, Dr. Anderson completed his PhD at the University of Rochester in 2017. His research focuses on electroacoustics, tactile audio, and audio signal processing for virtual reality applications. His papers appear in the Journal of the Audio Engineering Society and Archives of Acoustics, as well as the proceedings of IEEE WASPAA, Audio Engineering Society conventions, and Acoustical Society of America meetings. Masoud BaratiDr. Barati received his PhD in electrical engineering from the Illinois Institute of Technology in 2013. He was a research and instructional assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Houston, Downtown, and later was assistant professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at Louisiana State University. His research interest lies in developing new optimization and control algorithms for electric power systems. Examples of specific research topics in this area include the use of optimization techniques, such as algorithm-based programming, to solve the optimal power flow problem and to create the highest resiliency; designing methodologies for transactive energy management and microgrid integration; and developing algorithms for detecting and mitigating cyber-attacks in SCADA and protection systems. His current research interests include the intersection of data science and optimization theory with power grid applications, faster than real-time simulation, and multi-interdependent infrastructures management.  Liang ZhanDr. Zhan received his PhD in biomedical engineering at the University of California, Los Angeles in 2011. His research focus includes bioinformatics, biomedical signal/imaging processing, MRI signal modeling, machine learning, and algorithm development. Following his postdoctoral research at UCLA and prior to joining Pitt, he was an assistant professor of computer engineering at the University of Wisconsin – Stout. In 2017 he received a $425,000 National Institutes of Health National Institute on Aging award to study early detection of Alzheimer’s Disease. ###

Aug
22
2018

Swanson School and Center for Energy Partner with Leidos on Contract Award to Provide Research Support to NETL

Chemical & Petroleum, Electrical & Computer, MEMS

PITTSBURGH (August 22, 2018) … To leverage its expertise in energy research, the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering and Center for Energy will partner with Leidos on a ten-year, $365 million Research Support Services Contract awarded by the National Energy Technology Laboratory (NETL). As part of the agreement, Pitt will be part of a multi-disciplinary subcontracting team for Leidos, with NETL committing $20 million per year through Leidos to the subcontracting partners, which include Pitt. The contract is in a transition phase through the rest of 2018, with a formal start date of December 31, 2018.Pitt’s Center of Energy is a University-wide endeavor that leverages the energy-related expertise of approximately 100 faculty members across campus from multiple disciplines and departments across the Swanson School of Engineering, Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences, Law School, Business School and the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs. The Center has a successful history collaborating with the United States Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Fossil Energy (FE) and NETL, especially through the former NETL Regional University Alliance.“Our multi-disciplinary research has encompassed many coal, oil, and natural gas program areas managed by FE and NETL, so this is a natural partnership for us,” noted Gregory Reed, director of the Center for Energy. “We’re excited to help NETL and Leidos access our array of talented faculty for this critical program.” “We look forward to continuing a long standing NETL relationship through Leidos,” said David Vorp, associate dean for research at the Swanson School. “This contract will be critical in helping NETL maintain best-in-class research and development operations and continue to position NETL as a world-class DOE National Laboratory.” ###

Jul
23
2018

If Only A.I. Had a Brain

Electrical & Computer

PITTSBURGH (July 23, 2018) … Digital computation has rendered nearly all forms of analog computation obsolete since as far back as the 1950s. However, there is one major exception that rivals the computational power of the most advanced digital devices: the human brain.The human brain is a dense network of neurons. Each neuron is connected to tens of thousands of others, and they use synapses to fire information back and forth constantly. With each exchange, the brain modulates these connections to create efficient pathways in direct response to the surrounding environment. Digital computers live in a world of ones and zeros. They perform tasks sequentially, following each step of their algorithms in a fixed order.A team of researchers from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering have developed an “artificial synapse” that does not process information like a digital computer but rather mimics the analog way the human brain completes tasks. Led by Feng Xiong, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, the researchers published their results in the recent issue of the journal Advanced Materials (DOI:10.1002/adma.201802353). His Pitt co-authors include Mohammad Sharbati (first author), Yanhao Du, Jorge Torres, Nolan Ardolino, and Minhee Yun.“The analog nature and massive parallelism of the brain are partly why humans can outperform even the most powerful computers when it comes to higher order cognitive functions such as voice recognition or pattern recognition in complex and varied data sets,” explains Dr. Xiong.An emerging field called “neuromorphic computing” focuses on the design of computational hardware inspired by the human brain. Dr. Xiong and his team built graphene-based artificial synapses in a two-dimensional honeycomb configuration of carbon atoms. Graphene’s conductive properties allowed the researchers to finely tune its electrical conductance, which is the strength of the synaptic connection or the synaptic weight. The graphene synapse demonstrated excellent energy efficiency, just like biological synapses. In the recent resurgence of artificial intelligence, computers can already replicate the brain in certain ways, but it takes about a dozen digital devices to mimic one analog synapse. The human brain has hundreds of trillions of synapses for transmitting information, so building a brain with digital devices is seemingly impossible, or at the very least, not scalable. Xiong Lab’s approach provides a possible route for the hardware implementation of large-scale artificial neural networks.According to Dr. Xiong, artificial neural networks based on the current CMOS (complementary metal-oxide semiconductor) technology will always have limited functionality in terms of energy efficiency, scalability, and packing density. “It is really important we develop new device concepts for synaptic electronics that are analog in nature, energy-efficient, scalable, and suitable for large-scale integrations,” he says. “Our graphene synapse seems to check all the boxes on these requirements so far.”With graphene’s inherent flexibility and excellent mechanical properties, these graphene-based neural networks can be employed in flexible and wearable electronics to enable computation at the “edge of the internet”—places where computing devices such as sensors make contact with the physical world.“By empowering even a rudimentary level of intelligence in wearable electronics and sensors, we can track our health with smart sensors, provide preventive care and timely diagnostics, monitor plants growth and identify possible pest issues, and regulate and optimize the manufacturing process—significantly improving the overall productivity and quality of life in our society,” Dr. Xiong says.The development of an artificial brain that functions like the analog human brain still requires a number of breakthroughs. Researchers need to find the right configurations to optimize these new artificial synapses. They will need to make them compatible with an array of other devices to form neural networks, and they will need to ensure that all of the artificial synapses in a large-scale neural network behave in the same exact manner. Despite the challenges, Dr. Xiong says he’s optimistic about the direction they’re headed.“We are pretty excited about this progress since it can potentially lead to the energy-efficient, hardware implementation of neuromorphic computing, which is currently carried out in power-intensive GPU clusters. The low-power trait of our artificial synapse and its flexible nature make it a suitable candidate for any kind of A.I. device, which would revolutionize our lives, perhaps even more than the digital revolution we’ve seen over the past few decades,” Dr. Xiong says. ###
Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer
Jul
16
2018

A Foundation for Future Founders: The Swanson School Empowers a New Generation of Entrepreneurs

All SSoE News, Chemical & Petroleum, Electrical & Computer, MEMS, Student Profiles

.pullquote-feature { width: 50%; border-top: 1px solid #151414; border-bottom: 1px solid #151414; margin-left: auto; margin-right: auto; display: block; } With a 95–97 percent job placement rate for graduates over the past three years1, the University of Pittsburgh Swanson School of Engineering provides a well-manicured path for those traveling from Benedum Hall to the halls of Fortune 500 companies. At an increasing rate, students who embrace risk and uncertainty for the sake of innovation are also finding the tools they need at the Swanson School to carve their own paths to success. Aspiring entrepreneurs can attend networking opportunities, compete for seed money, and receive one-on-one mentoring from experienced entrepreneurs and educators right on campus. There were 23 startups originating from the University of Pittsburgh in the 2017-18 fiscal year, a 53 percent increase from the previous year. In the spring of 2017, two of those companies—one with a tomato-picking robot and the other with nanoparticle-filled oxygen tanks—took their first steps off the Pitt campus and into the startup world. “Engineering students are adept at solving real-world problems. That is why so many of the students we have participating in our entrepreneurship programs and competitions come from the Swanson School. They want to see their ideas translated into new products and services that advance the state of the art and improve people’s lives,” said Babs Carryer, Director of the Big Idea Center for student entrepreneurship at the Pitt Innovation Institute. “We know we’re undertaking a good amount of risk, but knowing that there is a whole industry that needs the product we are building helps mitigate that. At the end of the day, there always is risk, but for me, to not do this would lead to regrets. We are all about solving the problem.” --Brandon Contino, CEO at Four Growers, Pitt ECE ‘17 Four Growers team: Brandon Contino (left) and Dan Chi (right). Instead of taking a traditional route upon graduation, two recent University of Pittsburgh graduates have taken a risk on a project cooked up during their undergraduate studies in the Swanson School of Engineering. Brandon Contino (ECE ‘17) and Dan Chi (MEMS ‘18) have spent the past year tirelessly promoting their startup, Four Growers, in a series of competitions, and their most recent success will take them to Silicon Valley where they will be among the leading minds of innovation and technology. Brandon and Dan met while working in the lab of David Sanchez, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Pitt. The two collaborated on different projects involving hydroponics, a method of growing plants in a water-based, nutrient rich solution. Growing increasingly interested in this method of farming, the pair visited a hydroponic tomato greenhouse in Chicago where they learned of a pressing problem facing the industry. Brandon explained, “More than 50% of the tomatoes consumed in the US are grown in greenhouse farms, but the industry is facing an issue with labor. After talking to the farmers, we discovered that there are shortages in the availability and reliability of the labor force, and we wanted to find a solution through robotics and automation.” This spurred the creation of Four Growers. Brandon and Dan planned to develop a product that provides reliable harvesting year-round for greenhouse farms. Creating a startup is a high risk, high reward endeavor, but Brandon and Dan had faith in their idea. “After speaking with other greenhouses about the industry, we learned that labor was a common problem, and when you have a strong need, clearly defined from your future customer, it really helps to lower the risk,” said Brandon. Confident in their mission, the Four Growers team developed a robotic tomato harvesting device for commercial greenhouses that can efficiently find and pick ripe tomatoes off the vine. The robot’s decision making is controlled by an algorithm that uses cameras and a neural network trained to find the proper fruit. A robotic arm and custom gripper enable the robot to harvest the tomatoes without damaging them. Additionally, their device provides analytics to the growers to help improve profitability. Creating the product is only one step towards entrepreneurial success; getting your product to market requires a bit of business acumen. Brandon and Dan believe they have benefitted from their past experiences at Pitt. During Brandon’s undergraduate years, he served as president of multiple organizations including Pitt Engineering Student Council, the Robotics and Automation Society, and the Panther Amateur Radio Club. Dan created the Hydroponics Club in Dr. Sanchez’s lab, was a member of Engineers for a Sustainable World, and acted as fundraising director of the Society of Asian Scientists and Engineers. These experiences have introduced them to aspects of leadership and management applicable to their new executive roles. The Four Growers team has also taken advantage of various entrepreneurial programs and resources like Pitt’s Innovation Institute and Carnegie Mellon University’s Project Olympus, which have both provided valuable mentorship and contacts. Brandon said, “The connections we’ve made along the way have played a large role in our success. We’ve been able to discuss business aspects of the company with our mentors and advisors, and their expertise and guidance have refined our ability to operate both the technical and business sides of Four Growers.” Hydroponic tomato greenhouse. Photo credit: Shutterstock. The journey, however, has not been entirely smooth sailing. “Creating and running a business has a steep learning curve, and Dan and I have been drinking from the fire hose for a while now,” said Brandon. “One of our biggest hurdles has been financing. While Dan finished his degree, we decided to bootstrap and as a hardware company, it takes money to iterate on a product. Initially, we just didn’t have much funding so we had to spend a lot of time searching for lower cost options or workarounds, which slowed some of our technical development.” To overcome this setback, Brandon and Dan have spent the past year trying to raise funds through a series of competitions. Their first success was with Pitt’s Randall Family Big Idea Competition where they won first place and $25,000 to help launch their idea. Then they took second place and $10,000 against some of the most innovative students from the 15 Atlantic Coast Conference schools at the ACC InVenture Prize competition. Their last event took them to Texas where they became one of the first two Pitt teams to compete in the prestigious Rice Business Plan Competition and made it to the semi-finals. With funds starting to accumulate and Dan’s graduation imminent, they looked for the next step towards success and applied to Y Combinator, a highly competitive startup accelerator in Mountain View, California whose alumni include Airbnb, Dropbox and reddit. Four Growers was accepted as one of 90 teams and will receive $120,000 in exchange for 7 percent equity position in their company. Brandon and Dan will travel back and forth between greenhouse farms, Pittsburgh, and Silicon Valley for three months during the summer and receive intensive training to refine their business and prepare pitches to investors. Four Growers has successfully completed autonomous tomato harvesting inside greenhouses with their device and plan to have a beta prototype in operation by December 2018. Brandon and Dan’s entrepreneurial spirit and passion for sustainable farming helped lead them down this career path. The team looks forward to the challenges ahead and hopes to reap the harvest of a successful business. Brandon said, “We know we’re undertaking a good amount of risk, but knowing that there is a whole industry that needs the product we are building really helps mitigate that. At the end of the day though there always is risk, but for me, to not do this would lead to regrets. We are all about solving the problem.” “I don’t think this could have happened at another university without these kind of resources. Once I dug into something and realized someone at my age could actually do this and find the support—all the support that’s out there—it really propelled the business into reality, and it became the thing I knew I wanted to do.” --Blake Dubé, CEO and Co-Founder at Aeronics Inc., Pitt ChemE ‘17 Aeronics team: Alec Kaija (left), Blake Dubé (middle), Mark Spitz (right). With his sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh nearing an end, the last thing Blake Dubé (ChemE ’17) was looking to do was start a business. “I didn’t just breeze through the first two years of college,” he recalls. “It took a lot of work focusing on my classes and learning about chemical engineering. It wasn’t like I decided to start a business because I was looking for a bigger challenge.” Nearly three years later, Blake has won about a dozen startup competitions, he has a product scheduled to go to market this year, and he works full-time as CEO of the company he co-founded, Aeronics, Inc. Back in the spring of 2015, the only thing Blake was looking for was a lab to do summer research. After a visit to the ninth floor of Benedum Hall, Blake started research in the lab of Chris Wilmer, assistant professor of chemical engineering and himself an entrepreneur. Dr. Wilmer and his team were researching ways to use nanomaterials to improve gas storage, transportation, and safety in the many industries kept aloft by gas. Blake spent his time in the lab running computer simulations to find the best nanomaterial configurations for maximizing gas storage without the high levels of heat and pressure caused by putting too much gas into too small a container. “I realized gas storage was such a broad field and started wondering where I could make a difference in the three months I would be working in the lab,” says Blake. “Most of the focus seemed to be on energy sources like methane and hydrogen, and there wasn’t as much work being done with oxygen. I started to think about how better oxygen storage could make an impact.” The following semester, Blake enrolled in ChE 314: Taking Products to Market taught by Eric Beckman, Distinguished Service Professor of Chemical Engineering and co-director of the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation at Pitt. Dr. Beckman, who had co-founded his own business for commercializing technology, guided students through the process of turning ideas into marketable products. When Blake showed an interest in applying his lab research to the class, Dr. Wilmer suggested he enter the Randall Family Big Idea Competition, a university-wide innovation challenge. Everyday Oxygen prototype. The Randall Family competition takes place from February to March each year and awards $100,000 in prizes to Pitt students working on interdisciplinary teams to bring product ideas to market. Blake recruited teammates Alec Kaija, a PhD candidate in Dr. Wilmer’s lab, and Mark Spitz, a kinesiology and exercise science student and long-time friend of Blake from their hometown of York, Pa. Dr. Wilmer served as the team’s faculty advisor. “We started the Randall Family competition with the idea of fitting oxygen and the materials from Dr. Wilmer’s lab in a soda can. By the end of it, we actually had plans for a viable product, and since we won the grand prize, we had money to get started,” says Blake. The team won first place and the grand prize of $25,000 to get their company up and running. Blake, Mark, and Alec became co-founders of the startup Aeronics and went on to win several more competitions. By the spring of 2017, Aeronics had claimed more than $120,000 in prize money. While Blake and Mark were getting fitted for their graduation robes, they were measuring up the odds of successfully running their own business. “BASF, the largest chemical producer in the world, offered me a full-time job before I graduated. It would have been a great way to start my career. Around the same time, Aeronics was incorporated,” he says. “When you’re an entrepreneur at the university, before you graduate is different than after you graduate. Now you better make it work. The pressure is on.” Fortunately, Aeronics handles pressure well. Their prototype could store about three times as much oxygen as a standard portable oxygen tank at the same pressure. Still considering a more traditional career path, Blake consulted with Steve Little, the chair of the chemical engineering department, for advice. Dr. Little had been helping Aeronics navigate some of the issues with starting a private company at a university. “I remember asking Dr. Little for advice because he had experience starting his own business. He helped us a lot throughout the beginning stages, but he said to me, ‘I can give you all the advice you want, but sooner or later you’re just going to have to do it to find out if it will work,’” says Blake. One year later, Aeronics has completed two startup accelerator cohorts, found its own lab space to operate, and developed a product called Everyday Oxygen, which stores three times the oxygen as competitors’ cans. Everyday Oxygen is available for pre-order on their website and will be ready to ship in the fall. Looking back, Blake says he liked most of his experiences with research, internships, and studying chemical engineering at Pitt in general. He didn’t dream of becoming an entrepreneur as a kid, but now that he’s running his own business, it’s hard to imagine doing anything else. “I don’t think this could have happened at another university without these kind of resources. Once I dug into something and realized someone at my age could actually do this and find the support—all the support that’s out there—it really propelled the business into reality, and it became the thing I knew I wanted to do,” he says. ### 195 to 97 percent job placement rate over the past three years, http://www.engineering.pitt.edu/Friends-Giving-Administration/Office-of-the-Dean/Quick-Facts/
Leah Russell (Four Growers feature) and Matt Cichowicz (Aeronics feature)

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