Embedded Systems Course: Having Fun and Saving Lives

By Tiffany Fox

San Diego, Calif., June 23, 2015 — Students at the University of California, San Diego might be known for keeping their noses to the grindstone, but they also know how to let loose when the time is right. (Especially when letting loose will earn them course credit.)

Spring Quarter’s Embedded Systems Design course, taught by Computer Science and Engineering Professor and Qualcomm Institute Affiliate Ryan Kastner, teaches students the end-to-end process of building an embedded computing system, including how to use microcontrollers (such as Arduino and Beagle Bone Black) as well as sensors, actuators and other hardware and software tools. This year several of the projects that emerged from the course were all about building systems for having fun — but that’s not to say there weren’t also more serious pursuits. 

One course project, the BlueRave, makes it possible for any enterprising freshman to turn her dorm room into an underground club. Students Chris Taylor, Muhsin Gurel, Mohsen Imani, Jose Garza Guardado and Shishuo Ding equipped a PC with a custom graphical user interface (GUI) that wirelessly connects to consumer-grade lightstrips and syncs to a song’s BPM (beats per minute), creating a “poor man’s” music-and-light show. 

“Most light shows that complement music require expensive equipment, long setup times and trained professionals,” the students wrote in the abstract for their final report (learning to write research abstracts is another focus of the class). “Consumer grade hardware that is capable of syncing lights to music typically does not employ very advanced techniques and cannot complement the song very well. Our project attempts to bridge the gap.”

What could be more fun than a pop-up light show? How about a remote-controlled skateboard?  CSE 145 student Ryne Chaloux created the Tangent Board, an electric skateboard, after growing frustrated with his lengthy commute to campus. Designed for what Chaloux calls “those trips that are too far to walk and too close to require a car trip,” the custom-designed board combines a 280Kv Brushless DC Motor (enclosed in a waterproof casing) with a 2.4 Ghz wireless remote. Chaloux says that by relying on the board for some of his outings, he’s been able to reduce his commute time by 57 percent.

“Everywhere I take the Tangent Board, I’m constantly being stopped and asked what it is and I’m told how cool it is,” says Chaloux. “I’m now able to get to close places like the grocery store without having to use my car. I feel like I will truly use this for many years to come.”

And then there are the CSE 145 projects that sound playful but actually have significant practical applications. Take “Angry Birds,” for example. Although the project’s name is a riff on the popular video game, it’s actually a potentially important tool for protecting bird lives. 

Each year, between 100 million and 1 billion birds die due to collisions with windows (cats, by comparison, kill about 500 million birds per year, which means windows are more dangerous to birds than their natural predators). Birds, however, can see ultraviolet light. With this in mind, the team worked with researcher Dr. Paquita Hoeck from the San Diego Zoo to determine if a UV-reflecting film that can be stuck to windows in a particular pattern will deter birds from crashing into them.. 

For the project, CSE 145 students Giovanni Wong and Daniel Knapp created an autonomous system to collect data and reliably detect when a bird has come in contact with a window. Wong and Knapp designed a proof-of-concept for an embedded system that incorporates a Beaglebone Black microcontroller with a Logitech C920 HD pro camera, two SparkFun Triple axis accelerometer breakout boards and a real-time clock. The system was mounted to a window outfitted with the UV film, and Wong and Knapp through various bird-sized objects at the window to simulate collisions.

After 10 weeks of research, development and testing, the team reports that their device “shows promise in its goal to be a reliable way to test the effectiveness of the UV films.” (They will conduct further prototype testing this summer with the researchers in Pennsylvania.) Wong and Knapp note that if the films are 50 percent effective and are applied to only 10 percent of buildings, between five and 50 million birds could be saved annually.

Saving human lives was a focus for another team from CSE 145 -- specifically the lives of those who suffer from epilepsy. Epilepsy is the fourth most common neurological disorder in the world, potentially affecting one in 26 people, yet there is not currently a non-invasive device that will continuously monitor epileptic seizures. Seizures can potentially be fatal if epileptics experience them, say, while behind the wheel of a car.

With this in mind, students Alexandros Maragakis, Alexander Rosengarten, Mike Wild, Raul Pegan and Mike Lara took steps to create a proof-of-concept for a wearable, Bluetooth brain-computer interface that continuously monitors epileptic seizures and could theoretically be used to predict seizures before they occur.  They used an in-ear device that places four electrodes inside the ear canal and the outer ear and can receive brain waves below 30 Hz. These brain waves are then amplified and transmitted via Bluetooth to a laptop equipped with special software that detects the occurrence of temporal lobe seizures. 

Although the team was unable to implement a working brain-computer interface due to issues with the custom printed circuit board, they did achieve high signal quality from the personalized earpiece and concluded that “the project is at a point that it would not take much more effort to get the full system working.”  

"Each year the projects in this class set the bar higher and higher,” says Professor Ryan Kastner. “This is certainly true in this past class. The projects include aerial platforms for detecting wildlife, underwater stereo vision platforms, an automobile diagnostics system, a camera system for taking immersive panoramas, a glove that can translate sign language, and a ground robotic system that controls an aerial drone, just to name a few.

“Every project did an outstanding job in engineering a solution in just 10 weeks. And they were able to convey the importance and broader impacts of their ideas through oral presentations, videos, and written reports. The students in future classes have a lot to live up to."


Media Contacts

Tiffany Fox, (858) 246-0353, tfox@ucsd.edu

Related Links

CSE 145