View our entire construction photo gallery to follow the ECE ILLINOIS Building progress.
In some ways, completing the new ECE Building and populating a circuit board are rather alike. Both require the right components in the proper orientation. For the circuit board, these components include microprocessors, capacitors, micromachined sensors, and the like. For the new ECE building, they include the people who joined the department in the building campaign, offering financial support.
To recognize those donors in perpetuity, an art installation has been mounted between the lobby and the first-floor lecture halls. It resembles a wall-sized circuit board, measuring more than 18 feet long and 8 feet tall. The center features the motto, “Imagine. Built. Lead,” thoughts that have echoed through the building campaign. Around it are the names of major supporters.
“The reason we used the circuit-board design is, we thought of the donors as components,” said J. Todd Hearn, the university graphic designer who, along with Brandon Christie at Dean’s Graphics, conceptualized the donor wall. “When we came up with the circuit board, it was just, ‘Ah ha!’”
The wall has been designed in two layers. The background is the enlarged circuit board, with copper film on rectangular tiles of acrylic glass. The outer layer, elevated on aluminum standoffs, uses congruent rectangles, also in clear acrylic, which offer a clear view of the circuit pattern beneath. Interspersed within these are frosted rectangles with the names of the donors written in raised bronze lettering.
“Alumni and friends have played an essential role in ensuring that the new ECE Building is a state-of-the-art reality,” said Steven George, the senior director of advancement at ECE ILLINOIS. “We couldn’t have accomplished such an ambitious project—complete with net-zero energy features—without their support.”
The cost for the building, including furnishings and lab equipment, amounts to $95 million. Half of the funding came from the State of Illinois, while the other half has come from individual and corporate supporters. Already, the building is proving to be an academic and social hub for students, with new features ranging from a host of instructional labs lab to ample collaboration spaces.
The copper on the wall was fabricated using a die-cutter, which punches out the pieces using a custom-made blade, rather like an automated, super-sized cookie cutter. The pattern is based on a section of an actual circuit board designed by Skot Wiedmann, an instrument and measurement technician in ECE’s Electronics Services Shop. He used the board in an audio processing unit for electronic music, which he designed as a graduate student.
“I do try to approach these designs as both and artist and an engineer, so the aesthetics are important to me,” Weidmann said. “I actually still use [the processing unit] occasionally.”
According to Hearn, this donor recognition design may be the first of its kind. Neither he nor Christie had seen a wall-sized circuit board like this, and they were particularly pleased with the idea of using copper in the design. Not only is the building a vanguard accomplishment, but even this donor recognition wall is an innovation.
“Illinois always likes to be the first,” Hearn said.
Many still dream of the Jetsonian age where humanoid robots are chopping onions in the kitchen, vacuuming the stairs, and watering the philodendron.
While that technology isn’t quite here, already, robots are a part of our lives—even machines with physical, articulating arms. They’re in car factories, affixing parts of the chassis. They’re in medical research labs, sorting petri dishes and filling vials.
In the laboratory for ECE 470, Introduction to Robotics, around 60 students each year get a chance to work with robots like this. In the new Electrical and Computer Engineering Building, they are doing so in the control systems suite on the third floor, where the lab benches are equipped with cameras on overhead mounts and robotic arms. With this setup, the camera collects information about objects (often colored blocks) on the work surface, and the arm is then programmed to move and organize them.
“It’s a stepping stone,” said Dan Block, the teaching lab specialist who manages the equipment in the control systems labs. “It’sthe first thing you have to do in robotics, besides the math beforehand.”
The robotic arms are relatively simple, at least compared to those used in factories, but for the students, the teaching setup works well. It is robust and reliable, even if the arm movements don’t have millimeter precision like some industrial equipment.
“We like them because they can take a beating,” Block said. “There are some newer ones out there for education that I’m looking at, but I’m still a little leery of how durable they’re going to be.”
The lab is also equipped with one industrial-grade arm, a recent addition, equivalent to those sometimes used at semiconductor companies to sort and count parts. It will be used for special projects with students, as well as for demonstrations.
The curriculum in the introductory course focuses on the mathematics underlying robotic systems. Given the angles and length of the arms, the students generate algebraic matrices that determine how the elbows should bend, so the rubber claw at the end of the arm can reach and grasp its target.
“There’s math involved with taking the coordinate system of the camera and converting it to the coordinate system of the robot arm,” Block said. “They’re messy matrices. For that reason, you really can’t do it by hand because you would make a lot of mistakes. So we have these packages —Mathematica and Matlab — that generate these matrices.”
Introduction to Robotics is also offered through the departments of Computer Science, Mechanical Science and Engineering, and Industrial and Enterprise Systems Engineering. ECE Professor Seth Hutchison serves as the course director and is also the co-author of the course textbook, Robot Modeling and Control (Wiley), which is popularly used in engineering programs across the country.
After mastering this introductory content, ECE students can go onto other control-system or mechatronics courses and continue learning about robotic applications. And some students — especially those seniors with graduation close at hand — could find a speedy route into industry, where robots like this, though different from the one dusting for George and Jane, are nonetheless a part of daily life.
The field of digital signal processing specifically relates to machines that can process analog signals like data from a cable or information over a wireless network, encode them into numbers, and then decode the numbers back into analog signals at the end of the process.
This form of signal processing can be found throughout our technologically dominated world, as the analog signals from our phone calls are received and converted into audio data for us to hear, Wi-Fi signals are converted in our laptops into e-mails we peruse and respond to, and electrical pulses through cable networks are translated into shows on our television screens.
As new forms of technology and media supplant the old, for instance, smartphones replacing home telephones and cable networks displacing satellite dishes, digital signal processing as a field is constantly in flux.
As digital signal processing has changed over the past few years, ECE ILLINOIS has kept up with the times by building the Digital Signals Lab within its new building.
“The field of signal processing has grown significantly beyond traditional application areas like speech, image, and communications,” Professor Minh Do said. “Tools in signal processing are expanding, and the popularity of mobile devices, which have a rich set of embedded sensors like cameras, microphones, inertial measurement units, leads to an exciting new development and exploration platform for embedded digital signal processing.”
The lab itself is stocked with computers loaded with a microprocessor development system for students to gain hands-on experience working with digital signal processors like the Texas Instruments DSP C55x. These devices will allow students to design software solutions on Matlab, a technical computation software, test their effectiveness in a virtual environment, then port their debugged solutions to the lab’s physical equipment to see their work in action.
The lab computers are also equipped with a software development platform to acquire, process, and output signals on Android devices so that students can directly develop signal processing applications and test them on their smartphones, or on Google Nexus tablets available for checkout.
The Digital Systems lab will be the site of the ECE 420 course, Embedded Digital Signal Processing Laboratory, in which students will apply the theory they learned in ECE 310, Digital Signal Processing, to a laboratory course that teaches them the basics of actually working with signal processing.
They will start out learning additional theory, then graduate onto prototyping projects in Matlab, implementing them on microprocessors, and finally tie all their knowledge together by working on independent group projects in software development environments like Android.
“The lab is here to help students first learn how to work with digital signals, then for the rest of the course, it’s here for them to team up and work on their own projects together,” Do said. “They immediately split up and get to work on their own Android apps and other projects, and the lab gives them all the tools they need to take their innovations to the next level.”