Big Ideas to Transform Tomorrow

How do we find the next big idea? At the College of Engineering & Computer Science, we look for innovative projects that will help the college drive meaningful change and make Titan-sized transformations. Thankfully, our faculty are full of such ideas. For the last year, the college embarked on a strategic process to support faculty ideas that connect to meaningful social change. This fall, we will narrow down those Big Ideas from the six we received. This effort will better inform our “It Takes a Titan” campaign, allowing for donor investments to expand our impact in the community.

Take a look at the six proposals we received from our esteemed ECS faculty:

Early Wildfire Detection

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Nearly one-third of California’s population lives in areas susceptible to fire. The devastating wildfires in those areas over the last few years have had a significant impact: They have required rising expenditures for wildfire suppression, cost hundreds of millions of dollars per year, and produced carbon emissions equal to that of six coal plants running for a year for every 500,000 acres of fire. Wildfire detection technologies are in place. But these systems have many limitations, including non-exhaustive surveillance coverage, the need for human vigilance, expense, misdiagnosis of natural phenomena as fires, and an inability to detect young fires.

The smart wireless solar-powered sensor hub proposed by computer engineering faculty members Ankita Mohapatra, John Faller, and Rakeshkumar Mahto, and Jidong Huang, professor of electrical engineering, solves many of these problems. Its smarter node design uses an array of gas detectors to quickly identify probable young fires, and the team is exploring the inclusion of infrared sensors to detect humans in proximity to the fires and route emergency responders. The sensors relay information to a central processing station for data analysis and alert generation. Automatically reconfigurable solar panels maximize power absorption. A multi-objective optimization algorithm will be developed to determine the optimal location of sensor nodes to ensure full forest coverage. Sudden increases in temperature and humidity reductions will prompt preemptive action within possible risk areas. Sensors will provide vital data that can integrate with existing fire spread models to forecast the highest likelihood of a fire’s path, and mobile app support can warn local users about fire and possible evacuation, as well as help field observers and Firewatch volunteers with quick identification of areas at immediate risk.

The researchers’ sensor hub project is expected to save lives, minimize human displacement and loss of resources, support firefighting efforts, and reduce carbon emissions. Its development program also includes stipends for five students, increased engagement to help promote STEM retention, encouragement of interdisciplinary research and community collaborations, and enhanced knowledge and visibility for students’ future professional success.

Homelessness Intervention

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Homelessness is increasing in California and is one of the most critical problems in Orange County. In 2019, there were 6,860 homeless people in the county, 17 percent of whom were seniors, veterans, or people ages 18 to 24. In response to this epidemic, Anand Panangadan, assistant professor of computer science, proposes a digitally focused initiative to partner with service providers to help those impacted by homelessness.

Panangadan’s proposal involves leveraging the benefits of human outreach with adaptive technology, including telehealth assessments for mental health needs, smart supportive spaces, a digital identity initiative, and service-learning opportunities for ECS and other Cal State Fullerton students. He says adapting technology for a vulnerable population requires an interdisciplinary approach, and he lays out potential collaborations with faculty from computer engineering and departments in other colleges, as well as potential partnerships with other universities’ social work departments and community organizations that serve the homeless population. The Orchard, a permanent supportive housing facility in Santa Ana run by Mercy House, already supports the idea and is ready to collaborate. With an interdisciplinary faculty and student research team, Panangadan says that launching his project could help strengthen Cal State Fullerton’s existing work helping to reduce and resolve homelessness.

Human-Centered Design Initiative

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Jin Woo Lee, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, says more than 80 percent of products fail, largely because product designers fail to understand consumer needs. He proposes the Human-Centered Design Initiative, which aims to empower ECS students to design solutions focused on resolving social problems in Orange County and beyond. Potential benefits of his proposal include engagement with communities to deliver needs-based solutions, design experiences leading to increased student retention, and opportunities for students to build transferable skills. Collaborating with experts in diverse fields, Lee plans to scale up to 10 community projects per year, incrementally employing more than 100 students. This year, he is partnering with the City of Fullerton to launch his first project, through a senior design class. His goal is to engage students through fellowship support, build project partnerships with local government and nonprofits, and disseminate the work of those projects so similar programs can be replicated throughout the California State University system.

IoT-Enabled Remanufacturing

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Remanufacturing, the process of bringing end-of-life products back to “good-as-new” or “better-than-new” condition, performance levels, and quality, is an essential opportunity for recovering valuable resources, says the team of Sagil James, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; John Faller, associate professor of computer engineering; Kiran George, professor of computer engineering; and Anand Panangadan, assistant professor of computer science. The process also minimizes environmental impact, recovering more than 10 billion tons of materials and resources from waste, offsetting trillions of BTUs of energy annually, delivering an 80–99 percent potential reduction in greenhouse gases, and netting an 80–98 percent average reduction in the use of raw materials. But despite its sustainable nature, remanufacturing accounts for only 2 percent of all manufacturing in the United States. This is mostly due to technological hurdles, as well as a lack of standards and legislation, inconsistencies in the global economy, long-standing confusion around what remanufacturing is, and consumer perception of remanufactured goods as second rate.

These researchers seek to overcome technological barriers by developing key digital technology platforms, specifically the Internet of Things, to address the digital divide and the deepening skills gap created by the move toward smart factories. They are also aiming to motivate manufacturing industries for the widespread adoption of remanufacturing principles, thereby supporting the U.S. manufacturing ecosystem. To accomplish their plan, they expect to draw upon the ECS faculty’s vast knowledge, ample experience, and connections with local and national remanufacturing industries, research institutes, and organizations; as well as partner with the Center for Sustainability in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. Because ECS has already conducted extensive research and work toward building an IoT curriculum, the team seeks to establish the only research center for IoT-enabled remanufacturing in the western U.S. and further build productive partnerships among policymakers, researchers, and businesses to drive sustainability.

Embracing Industry 5.0

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The Fifth Industrial Revolution, or Industry 5.0, is defined by autonomous manufacturing with human intelligence. Industry 5.0 – proposed by Sagil James, assistant professor of mechanical engineering; John Faller, associate professor of computer engineering; and Kiran George, professor of computer engineering – brings back human workers to the factory floors. Their proposal pairs human brainpower and creativity with machines to increase process efficiency by combining workflows with intelligent systems. Challenges for Industry 5.0 include a demand for workers exhibiting peak physical and psychological performance as well as enhanced critical thinking and real-time decision-making abilities. The project must also overcome people’s ingrained sense of distrust and misuse of intelligent machines, as well as cybersecurity challenges.

To overcome those challenges, the researchers plan to conduct cutting-edge investigation and educational activities that accommodate both human and machine components in ways that exploit their respective strengths and mitigate their respective weaknesses. Multidisciplinary faculty researchers at ECS who specialize in industrial engineering, robotics, machine learning, artificial intelligence, human factors modeling, and human-machine interactions are spearheading the research. They will collaborate with faculty experts from the College of Health and Human Development and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences as well as with stakeholders from local communities, local industries, policymakers, and government agencies. According to the research team, Industry 5.0 will bring a higher level of product personalization and customer satisfaction, create new jobs, impact a variety of fields, and ensure the sustainability of human civilization.

Next-Level Arboretum

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Hakob G. Avetisyan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, has proposed upgrading, integrating, and expanding the community reach of the Fullerton Arboretum. He proposes to construct a plant conservation facility with a Plant Biosafety Level 2-certified research greenhouse, restructure the Arboretum’s lakes system to use it for educational purposes, and build a solar power system for research and student engagement. The outcomes would include increased student and faculty research, the formation of socially conscious industry collaborations, establishment of paid student fellowships, and enhanced water sustainability for the Arboretum.

With the established resources of the Cal State Fullerton Arboretum, top-ranked civil and environmental engineering programs, more than 130 faculty members with interest in environmental sustainability research, and Cal State Fullerton’s award-winning sustainability practices, Avetisyan says the project already has a strong start, but collaboration will be key to best prioritize and resource his eventual goals. His proposal is expected to further enhance collaborations among Arboretum staff and faculty from civil and environmental engineering, computer engineering, and biology, along with industry support. The project also seeks to establish a strong program of K–12 community outreach and to deliver increased opportunities for student and public access to a world-class open space and arboretum.

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