DARPA Young Faculty Award winner accelerating advances in sensing technologies to aid national defense
Umit Ogras veers easily back and forth from the pragmatic to the idealistic when he talks about his work and what he hopes it will make possible.
Ogras says he chose to leave a high-tech industry job with Intel to join Arizona State University’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering because its research strengths aligned with his varied interests in flexible technologies, human-machine interaction and energy-efficient computation and communication.
The chance to explore these and other topics made the move to ASU “a big opportunity to follow my dreams,” he said, because “they are open to new ideas and thinking big here.”
In the five years since then, Ogras has seen that promise blossom.
Progress in the pursuits of his eLab led in 2017 to a highly sought-after National Science Foundation CAREER Award, which supports research of young faculty members who are seen as potential leaders in areas of engineering, science and technology deemed important to the nation’s interests.
The value of his labors was further validated this year with a Young Faculty Award from the research arm of the U.S. Department of Defense, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, commonly called DARPA.
The agency’s funding will enable Ogras to concentrate more intensely on technologies that enable “wide-area sensing” using internet of things devices to monitor, gather data and communicate within surrounding environments.
What Ogras aims to provide are low-cost, zero-maintenance “energy-harvesting” and wireless sensing and communications tools that won’t require charging or replacement — made by printing tiny electrical circuits on small, physically flexible polymer platforms on which commercially available computer processing chips can be mounted.
Those technologies are being designed to enable real-time analysis of an array of situations in areas of active national defense operations.
Such tools could help commanders evaluate the physical conditions and performance of personnel in the field, monitor the operability of the safety-critical equipment and provide a virtual picture of a range of activities occurring across broad expanses of terrain.
Ogras says these advances will represent another step in the evolution of technology, which has seen the capabilities of room-size assemblages of computing machines be performed by desktop computers, then by laptop computers and now by handheld electronic devices.
“Next the technology will get even smaller and then go out of our hands,” to devices the size of a pen and to electronics embedded in fabrics we will wear, he said.
And even with all this miniaturization and flexibility of computing devices, he points out that “our smaller technologies are going to get loaded with more sensors.”
Ogras hopes to see the impact of his contributions to that trend reach beyond enhancing defense capabilities and applying the kinds of sensors he is developing to produce assistive devices.
“My main motivation is to improve quality of life in general and empower people with physical disabilities,” he said.
That might mean “smart” wheelchairs, wearable computing systems or sensing systems that connect the brain to automated technologies.
Through courses he teaches as an assistant professor of electrical engineering in the School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering, one of the Fulton Schools, Ogras is passing along to students some of the latest knowledge in areas of large-scale integrated electrical circuit design and the design of ever-advancing electronic architectures for computers with multiple processors.
His own eLab research is being enhanced through his collaborations with ASU colleagues at the Center for Wireless Information Systems and Computational Architectures — including a new major DARPA-funded computational architecture project — the Power One IC research center and the Flexible Electronics and Display Center.
DARPA typically receives several hundred research proposals each year from applicants for its annual Young Faculty Awards. Ogras’ proposal was one of only two selected in the Wide-Area Sensing category, which drew a particularly high number of applicants.
DARPA’s decision to support his research reflects not only on his own skills, Ogras says, but on the exceptional work that other ASU engineers have done over the years to help the nation achieve its technology innovation goals.
DARPA awards reflect quality research by ASU’s young faculty
Ogras’ DARPA Young Faculty Award is one of three given this year to ASU faculty members. The others went to Sze Zheng Yong, an assistant professor of aerospace and mechanical engineering in the Fulton Schools, and Mahyar Eftekhar, an assistant professor of supply chain management in the W. P. Carey School of Business.
ASU faculty have now won 10 DARPA Young Faculty Awards in the past five years, compared to two between 2006 and 2013.
“These recent awards are a strong testament to the quality of the junior faculty members who have been coming to ASU, particularly the Fulton Schools, in recent years,” said Nadya Bliss, director of ASU Global Security Initiative and a professor of practice in the Fulton Schools.
In 2015, Bliss and Jamie Winterton, GSI’s director of strategy, put together the DARPA Working Group, with Winterton as its chair, to help junior ASU faculty members pursue the career-boosting DARPA awards.
The Young Faculty Awards currently provide up to $250,000 annually for two years, with the option of $500,000 for a third year if projects show promising results.
The awards are especially attractive for researchers “because DARPA is an agency that will give you room to dream big,” Winterton said. “They want researchers to aim high because they are looking for outcomes that will be revolutionary.”
DARPA also “wants solutions to problems that are super-interesting,” Bliss said. Plus, the projects offer opportunities to collaborate with leading researchers in industry and at other prominent research universities.
ASU’s DARPA Working Group has been guiding faculty members on how to flesh out research concepts and “frame their ideas in ways that clearly and distinctly solve the kinds of problems DARPA invests in,” Winterton said.
Ogras, Yong and Eftekhar were each coached on preparing their submissions.
Along with composing intriguing narratives about their methods and goals, their proposals “were strong in demonstrating the defense and security applications of their work and in explaining how they would overcome technological challenges,” Winterton said.
Since the DARPA Working Group began its efforts, Winterton and Bliss estimate that ASU has gone from about 30th place to as high as sixth place among universities in the number of DARPA Young Faculty Awards earned by faculty.
Daniel Bliss, a Fulton Schools associate professor of electrical, computer and energy engineering, isn’t surprised Ogras was successful in winning the DARPA award.
In their research collaborations, Daniel Bliss says Ogras “has distinguished himself with his technical abilities, creativity and work ethic.”
He adds that Ogras has a good intuition for how to effectively focus his work on achieving advances that meet the explicit goals of particular research agencies while also showing how the results would provide broader societal benefits beyond the scope of a specific project.
All of those positive traits were exhibited in Ogras’ proposal to DARPA, Daniel Bliss says, “clearly making him an excellent Young Faculty Award candidate.”
Top photo: Fulton Schools Assistant Professor Umit Ogras wants to use his electrical engineering skills not only to support national defense goals but to develop technologies to empower people with physical disabilities. Photo by Erika Gronek/ASU