Writer: Gabriel Vasquez
The Las Cruces Bulletin
Imagine a colony of highresolution night-sky cameras burrowed miles apart from each other in New Mexico, watching the celestial bodies for signs of danger. Or an unmanned aerial vehicle mapping the course of Somali pirates traveling across the Gulf of Aden.
This technology is becoming a reality, thanks to students, researchers and professors at the College of Engineering at New Mexico State University and the Physical Science Laboratory(PSL).
“Promoting technology in the state of New Mexico is something that we all want to do,” said Kenneth White, interim dean of the NMSU College of Engineering. “We have an impressive (research) ranking for an institution of our size.”
White, along with about 30 other students and professors, hosted the first-ever College of Engineering Technology Forum and Exchange Thursday, Feb. 18, at the PSL Auditorium.
Professors, researchers and company executives spoke about various research projects ongoing at NMSU, some in the public eye, and others that are more “top secret.”
Key engineering research areas for NMSU include aerospace, energy, information sciences and water technology.
Steve Hottman, associate dean and deputy director for PSL’s 21st Century Aerospace program, talked about the origins of PSL and how it came to be a research facility for the German V2 rocket after World War II.
“(PSL)startedwithanumber of students taking high-speed photographic data and turning it into performance characteristics,” said Hottman, clarifying that PSL’s focus is now on aerospace and information security. “We focus on lighterthan- air platforms, unmanned aircraft and missiles and rockets and the telemetry associated with those systems.”
PSL’s ballooning program, Hottman said, is robust. PSL operates a facility in Palestine, Texas, where more than 130 NMSU employees work to fly payloads in balloons – some as large as the Houston Astrodome – to a near-space environment for NASA, which owns the facility. “We’ve operated them as high as 160,000 feet,” he said.
The team in Palestine studies ultra violet X-ray and cosmic ray astronomy, solar heliospheric physics, infrared sub-millimeter and gamma ray astronomy, among other areas, Hottman said.
Also unique to PSL is its unmanned aircraft program, which operates the largest flight test center for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the country.
“With UAVs, you’re looking to detect, sense and avoid,” Hottman said. “You don’t have a pilot onboard, so we work on technologies to replace the human visual system.”
With more than 15,000 miles of air space, PSL’s test range dwarfs that of White Sands Missile Range. It houses its UAVs – one of which has a 115-foot wingspan – at a special hangar in El Paso International Airport, Hottman said.
“That’s the largest ever flown at PSL. It’s about 20 feet shorter than a 700 series jet,” he said.
Carl Johnson, vice president of Northrop Grumman’s BAMS Unmanned Aircraft Systems division, said the research ongoing at NMSU is first-rate.
“This is a land-grant institution, and NMSU does a fine job of serving the state of New Mexico through PSL,” he said.
Enedina García Vásquez, PSL associate dean and deputy director of Information Sciences and Security Systems, spoke about the information weather modeling and threat analysis research being done on campus.
Vasquez’ teams work on developing integrated meteorological systems, tactical weather support for the U.S. Army and electronic countermeasures for U.S. Army air and missile defense systems, among other projects, she said. In almost every PSL research project, students are involved, Vasquez noted.
“We’ve worked very hard to increase our outreach and education opportunities for students,” she said.
One of PSL’s student programs, Workforce in National Security, or WINS, connects students with “three letter” government agencies to help them find employment in the field, she said. PSL partners regularly with agencies such as the Department of Defense, Homeland Security, National Science Foundation and NASA, among a host of others.
As part of the WINS program, PSL plans to host 80 students for a summer program called the “Red Revolution,” which will teach high school students the importance of a technology-focused education through hands-on projects.
David Voelz, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, explained his work in helping developan “all-sky camera system” in the state, a seed project funded by Sandia National Laboratories.
“We’re trying to develop an all-sky ground camera network that monitors meteors and other fireball events in the atmosphere,” he said. “There are 100 cameras out there so far, and we’ve built 40 of them. The challenge is trying to connect them all together.” The cameras, Voelz said, trigger at night when an object enters the atmosphere. Several are mounted on the top of Goddard Annex at NMSU.
The cameras can detect objects several miles around their perimeter.
“All the data from the cameras comes to a server at NMSU,” he said. “They watch what we can’t when we’re all asleep.”
The technology could eventually help astronomers get a better grasp on the amount of space debris entering Earth’s atmosphere, as well as when, where and why.
Satish Ranade, professor of electrical and computer engineering who specializes in energy systems at NMSU, said his team of researchers and students is working to develop a model for a statewide “smart grid” that could eventually connect homes’ renewable energy sources to the big grid, and to each other, to dramatically increase energy efficiency.
“We’re talking about creating islands of homes that could power themselves in case of an emergency,” he said.
Ranade works closely with students, who in turn work with sponsors, and in many cases, move on to careers within those companies.
“We develop projects between faculty and industry, and turn them over to the students to get an assessment, or value, of that idea,” he said. “Almost every project is somehow linked with an industry application.”
Also speaking at Thursday’s forum were Shuguang Deng, professor of chemical engineering, who showcased research in advanced materials for sustainable energy and clean water; Charles Creusere, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who spoke about digital signal processing and communications research; Zohrab Samani, professor of civil engineering, who spoke about remote sensing to improve agricultural water management; David Jáuregui, associate professor of civil engineering, who showcased NMSU’s The Bridge program; and Thomas Jenkins, professor of engineering technology, who spoke about the overall academic curriculum for renewable energy technology in the College of Engineering.
The forum, the first of its kind, will be held annually to inform the public and university staff of ongoing projects at the engineering college and PSL. For more information, visit http://engr.nmsu.edu.