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Smart engineers extend capabilities of smartphones

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Smart engineers extend capabilities of smartphones

Left to right at front, Professors Dominic Ho, from electrical and computer engineering, and Yi Shang, from computer science, pose with graduate students from their labs and the lab of colleague Wenjun “Kevin” Zeng. The entire group has contributed to a research project to add new functionality to smartphones for use by the military under a Leonard Wood Institute grant. The results of their work have implications for the way we all use smartphones in the future. Research assistants from left to right, second row, are Yue Wang, Zhuang Tiancheng, Dan Wang and Lingshuang Wu. Third row, Alex Lobzhanidze, Paul Baskett, Fei Wu, Liyang Rui, Chao Shi and Qia Wang.

With funding from a U.S. Army/Leonard Wood Institute research grant, the University of Missouri College of Engineering professor has enhanced the device’s capabilities for target localization and tracking functions. These new capabilities go hand-in-hand with his work to create ad hoc networks with smartphones, allowing the wireless devices to communicate with each other without the presence of a router.

The MU researcher has worked for 10 years in this vein of research, which he says is a “hot” area of study. His research team initially used wireless sensor nodes for peer-to-peer communication. A paper he submitted on those ad hoc network investigations to the 2003 Association of Computing Machinery Conference on Mobile and Ad Hoc Computing has been cited more than 700 times.

Shang has since replaced the sensor nodes with the “off-the-shelf” technology represented by the smartphones, and at the same time has opened the device’s treasure trove of additional capabilities.

“The Android phones and iPhones have powerful processors, allowing us to write complicated programs to use with them,” said Shang. “Each smartphone has a camera, a microphone, GPS, a compass, an accelerometer and several other sensors. And it typically supports three kinds of wireless communication: Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and cellular.”

Add the phone’s inherent capabilities to those being developed by Shang and MU computer science collaborator, Professor Wenjun “Kevin” Zeng — with expertise in multimedia and networking — and electrical and computer engineering Professor Dominic Ho — who has worked extensively with signal processing — and the result is a formidable tool for soldiers in combat situations with potential for a variety of additional applications.

“Currently, if you want to send files you need Internet access,” said Tiancheng Zhuang, a computer science master’s degree candidate working with Shang.

“And it takes minutes to send sound or image files that way,” added Paul Basket, also a master’s candidate in Shang’s lab.

But, explained the pair, because the Android system supports Wi-Fi, and because it operates on a Linux system, they are able to modify the phone’s networking system, writing code to create peer-to-peer Wi-Fi communication that can support multi-hop ad hoc networks.

“It allows users to share information between phones in a very convenient and fast way,” said Zhuang.

“Imagine a team of soldiers in the field,” said Shang. “They see an enemy target in the distance, but lasers used to provide guidance to the target might be visible to the enemy.

“With our smartphone-based system, team members can take pictures of the target and obtain its GPS location, which can be relayed via wireless networks to interested parties.”

In addition, the researchers have developed an acoustic, or sound-based, localization method. If a group of soldiers in the same area hears something, they can each use their smartphones to record the sound and share it, and the software the researchers have developed will determine the location of the sound source. This capability is especially useful in the dark or urban environments.

The smartphones also can be used to track an object’s movement.

“With the supporting wireless communication infrastructure we have developed, soldiers can communicate these things with each other through an ad hoc network,” said Shang. “

Such ad hoc networks can quickly be formed in emergency situations. This technology has many potential civilian applications including use by emergency responders for such tasks as the identification of imminent danger to directing traffic.

Friends wanting to share a landmark or researchers wanting to share an exact location of something they’ve discovered can merely take a photo of what they are viewing, and its location will be shared with everyone on the network.

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