SFU engineering science professor Rodney Vaughan is leading a nearly $3 million CFI-funded project to accelerate research in remote sensing.

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CFI Innovation Fund series: the science of remote sensing

November 03, 2017
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SFU professor Rodney Vaughan is leading an SFU research project that has just received nearly $3 million from the Canada Foundation for Innovation (CFI) to accelerate research in remote sensing—the gathering of information about an object, from a distance.

The project is called Multi-Scale Remote Sensing: From Imaging to Immersive Communications, and is one of five SFU-led research projects to benefit from CFI innovation funding this year.

SFU News spoke with Vaughan about his research project, comprising a new team of researchers from diverse disciplines, expertise and career stages —all of the ingredients necessary for advancing innovative technology.

Tell us about your academic background, research interests and what led you to where you are today in your career.

My engineering degrees are from New Zealand and Denmark. Most of my career has been industrial, so I was a late starter as a professor in Simon Fraser University’s School of Engineering Science in 2003. It took me quite a while to appreciate the different priorities in academia, and also the way things work in Canada.

I didn’t see myself becoming a professor before being invited to apply to SFU.  I am loving it. I have had great luck in receiving outstanding support from external companies. This particularly includes Sierra Wireless Inc., which is a world leader in devices and connectivity for the Internet-of-Things, a strong anchor company for Canada and a champion for improving B.C.’s high-tech commerce. Sierra supports research, people, events and the development of other B.C. companies.

Can you tell us about your proposal’s research goals?

Remote sensing uses many disciplines and some of the connections may not be obvious. The basic idea is to use sensors and signal processing to interface physical fields and waves to information. Honing in on the information from these signals requires significant data computation. Extracting information from vast quantities of data, such as from the internet, is popularly called Big Data, and so remote sensing overlaps heavily with Big Data techniques.

There are strong connections to other disciplines as well. One of our research goals is to trade knowledge with these different areas to create new fundamental knowledge and new technology. Our research objectives include making new technological contributions to the fundamental limits of spatial wave behavior, TeraHertz wireless for electrical energy sustainability, immersive communications, imaging, and environmental acoustics.

What are some of the technological needs will you be addressing?

From observing that a large proportion of our electrical power goes into wireless communications, which have ultra-low efficiency and continue to expand explosively, new technology is required for electrical energy sustainability. A way forward is through new millimeter-wave (Terahertz) antennas which adaptively and precisely control radiowave fields to reduce waste energy.

For the communications user, increasingly sophisticated interfaces are leading us to immersive systems, where the spatial experience - acoustic and visual - becomes critical. Here the acoustic fields must be controlled precisely and adaptively, and maintain a close link to the 3D visual fields.

In related work, new environmental acoustics research will result in healthier urban environments. Finally, new, nano-imaging systems require precise, adaptive control of laser fields, and will result in better medical imaging and services.

Why is your research suitable for CFI funding?

We sought to create a new team from engineering science, with specialist expertise from computing science, physics and mathematics (all from SFU) and environmental acoustics (from BCIT). The CFI evaluation panel particularly liked the strong research team, its goal of addressing fundamentals using multiple disciplines, and its relevant research plan.

Are there any challenges you’d like to share?

For me, it remains a challenge to find balance between breadth and specialization in engineering research training. Engineers are more effective if armed with experience across disciplines, but academic research performance metrics rely on specialization, which comes at the expense of breadth.

Another challenge is to ensure that B.C. industry has access to the benefit of our training, and in particular, our research training. Many high-tech Canadian companies, similar to U.S. companies, prefer their advanced-degree employees to have several—often 10—years of industrial experience.

This leaves a hole between graduation and getting an appropriate job. I would like to see more targeted funding for advanced degree-holders for transitioning into appropriate jobs in B.C. companies. This should help more of our research graduates stay in B.C., in wealth-creating roles.

What would you most like the public to know about your research project and goals?

Perhaps the most important aspect is that this investment is based on a great deal of thought about delivering value. We undertake new, world-class engineering research projects that contribute to Canada’s international research presence, and are also relevant and useful for B.C.

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