U.Va. Undergrads Track Foot Traffic to Make Study Areas More Accessible

March 18, 2014

The University of Virginia Faculty Senate and Center for Undergraduate Excellence recently announced the recipients of the 2014 Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards. To mark the announcement, UVA Today looks back at what some of the 2013 grantees have learned in the past year.

A quartet of University of Virginia students in the School of Engineering and Applied Science is using a Harrison Undergraduate Research Grant to deploy sensors to track student movement in Rice Hall’s study areas.

They aren’t with the NSA. They’re just trying to make the building a little more user-friendly.

The state-of-the-art Rice Hall, with 100,000 square feet of space spread over six stories, was designed to allow faculty and students to conduct research and learn while surrounded by high-performance computing, computer visualization, computer security, energy conservation, wireless communications, telemedicine, virtual reality, distributed multimedia and distance learning technology. As the new (since 2011) home of the Computer Science and the Electrical and Computer Engineering departments, it also features unique spaces for lab work, lectures and studying.

The study spaces feature dry-erase boards and flat screen television sets to encourage collaboration. Because these spaces are popular, students spend a lot of time seeking out unoccupied study areas.  

The team of electrical and computer engineering students – Jonathon Blonchek, 21, of West Friendship, Md., Vinay Dandekar, 21, of Fairfax, and Anish Simhal, 22, and Shiv Sinha, 21, both of Centreville – is seeking to create a tracking system with an application to determine which study spaces are open at any given minute.

“Walking through Rice Hall was extremely tedious, so we thought there should be a better way to find an open space,” said Blonchek, a computer engineering and computer science major. “Therefore, we began to research what technology was required to achieve this goal.”

Their work was funded by the Harrison Undergraduate Research Awards program, which backs undergraduate research projects for one year. Approximately 40 awards of up to $3,000 each are granted on a competitive basis to first-, second- and third-year undergraduate students. Students who receive the awards work closely with a faculty mentor on their research.

Some existing space-use monitoring systems employ video cameras or webcams, but these can be expensive and generate privacy concerns, Dandekar said. The quartet developed a network of wireless sensors to track student movement in and out of the study areas and funnel the information into a database. From there, a second interface translates the data into useful information. They used wireless sensors because they increase the convenience and marketability of the system.

“We designed an integrated wireless sensor platform to detect occupancy in semi-enclosed areas, to help students find an empty study areas via a mobile application, Sinha said. “We constructed a full-scale prototype by integrating a microprocessor, passive and thermal infrared sensors and digital radios in a three-dimensional printed custom enclosure.”

The team is in the process of finalizing their designs and testing them in one area of Rice Hall. Their system combines two sensor packages, one at the entrance to the nook and one on the ceiling. The door sensors count how many people have entered or exited the room, keeping a count of current occupancy. The ceiling sensor detects idle time to ensure that students are being alerted when the room is actually empty.

“Once we perfect its configuration, which we hope to do by the end of the school year, it will be easily extendible to the rest of Rice’s study spaces,” Simhal said.

The quartet sees a potential for a version of this to be implemented for use by the private sector, as well as at other schools with similar problems and on other buildings on Grounds with similar layouts, such as libraries with public study areas.

“There are a wide variety of market applications, not only with study spaces,” Blonchek said. “For instance, consider retail, where tracking the movement of your customers through a store is vital to marketing and sales efforts.”

It can also be used for energy savings by clearly detecting when a space is in use and controlling the lights.

“The original motivation behind this project was to supply students of the University of Virginia with an easy way to find available study spaces within one of the most popular studying spots for engineering students,” they wrote in a report on the project in the spring 2013 issue of Spectra, U.Va.’s undergraduate engineering research journal. “We envision a system in the future that allows students to locate a study space at any of the viable locations around the University. Our data shows that a counting system cannot be the only solution to detecting presence in a space; the system will need to be augmented with more sensors that will allow for more accurate detection.”

Archie Holmes, a professor of electrical and computer engineering who is also associate provost of the University, said the four students work very well together.

“About two years ago, these students approached me to supervise them on this project,” Holmes said. “Besides providing an initial outline of a problem to pursue, doing the detection without the use of a camera, they have been quite independent. My role now is to help them think though problems that they have when they as a team come up with multiple approaches.

“When I do meet with them, they are all able to talk confidently about any aspect of their work, the challenges they have faced, and the solutions they have devised to address the challenges,” he said. “This, to me, points to a strong team.”

The members of the team share similar interests. All four are members of the Engineering Student Council and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Blonchek is also a senior resident for Housing and Residence Life and a member of the Engineering Guide Service. Simhal is a member of the U.Va. Center for Wireless Health and a mentor at the FIRST Robotics competition.

The research has been a serious learning experience for the four students. 

“It taught us patience, contemplation and the importance of iterative design,” Dandekar said. “We have realized that formally learning a platform may be more beneficial to developing a new system rather than learning on our own. The platform we chose had little guidance to newcomers and so our development time early on was focused on basic functionality. Knowing what we know now, we would have moved to features of the system that we did understand and gotten a holistic view of the system functionality.”

Their work has them ready to walk into a future where most of the quartet is stepping into software/hardware positions in the private sector workforce. At this point, only Simhal plans to pursue graduate study.

“We’re super excited about research in this field and hope to work in tangentially related areas,” Simhal said.

Media Contact

Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications