New dream teams in science and engineering

Fall 2022 Inventing tomorrow
Research team for smarter self-driving AVs
The AV research team poses with the University's first autonomous research vehicle, a modified Chrysler Pacifica Minivan. Photo by Rich Ryan.

Project 1: Paving the way for smarter and safer AVs

There’s been a lot of progress toward self-driving cars in recent years, but we still have a long way to go before the system runs like a well-oiled machine. Even with all the advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, autonomous vehicles (AVs) are still not well-equipped to handle accidents, bad weather, poor visibility, and other unexpected situations on the road.

These challenges have given rise to the concept of teleoperated AVs, or AVs that are partially controlled by a remote operator when necessary. While this concept makes AV adoption more feasible, there’s more to it than just a person managing the vehicle from an off-site location.

“You need the vehicle to receive directions, but you also need the system that is operating everything to quickly receive data from the vehicle and from other vehicles, to give that remote operator a sense of what’s going on,” said Konstan.

It’s a complicated problem, but the researchers working on this InterS&Ections project are determined to figure it out. “We don’t just want to make the car smart—we also want to make the infrastructure smart by using advanced network communication technologies such as 5G and edge computing,” said Zhi-Ling Zhang, lead PI and a professor in computer science and engineering.

Think of it as air traffic control, but for self-driving vehicles. Zhang’s team will develop new models and algorithms to move us closer to edge-assisted intelligent driving systems. Unlike the larger-scale cloud computing, edge computing puts the data closer to the location where it’s being generated, at the “edge” of the network.

“The amount of data we need to collect is huge, and shifting all that information to the cloud would take a lot of bandwidth and result in delays,” said Zhang. “Edge computing will help us process the information faster.”

Zhang has led some of the world’s first large-scale, commercial 5G measurement studies. Co-investigator Rajesh Rajamani is a leading expert on estimation and vehicle control for intelligent transportation systems. And co-investigator Jeff Calder is an expert on graph learning and related topics. Putting their heads together, the team is likely to lay a foundation for future funding, while boosting Minnesota’s reputation as a leader in AV research.

Thanks to its state-of-the-art research facilities, the University is an ideal place for this project. Under the umbrella of the new “MnCAV Ecosystem,” researchers, government, and industry partners are coming together to develop and test connected and autonomous vehicle technologies. Led by the Center for Transportation Studies, this ecosystem includes a fully automated 2021 Chrysler Pacifica minivan that serves as a customizable, experimental testbed.

Ultimately, the project team will help identify the most critical needs for the nation’s physical and digital AV infrastructures. “We’re not funding this because, at the end of a year or two, we’re going to magically see these autonomous vehicles driving around campus,” said Konstan. “It’s about a longer-term national priority—and this team is addressing the gaps that need to be filled in order to get us there.”

AV sensor
Photo by Rich Ryan



Professors Phil Buhlmann, Sarah Swisher, and Andreas Stein with grad students
(From left) Faculty members Sarah Swisher, Andreas Stein, and Phil Buhlmann with their student researchers. Photo by Rich Ryan.


Medical patch
Medical patch graphic
Materials: Flexible, bandage-like material with embedded microneedles (black) that are coated with nanoporous carbon (gold) and an ion-selective membrane (maroon). Photo by Rich Ryan


Project 2: Improving emergency medicine through wearable patches

If you’ve had the misfortune of visiting an emergency room, you’re probably familiar with the waiting game. In many cases, you start by waiting in the lobby for an exam room. Once a room opens, you wait to see a nurse, who will likely take some lab samples. Next, you wait to see the doctor. Meanwhile, the doctor waits for your lab results. It’s likely that hours go by before you find out what’s wrong and what to do about it, and by that time, your vitals may have changed.

Imagine if all this waiting time could be used to gather valuable information through an easy-to-use, wearable patch. That’s the vision behind this InterS&Ections project. Researchers from electrical and computer  engineering, chemistry, mechanical engineering, civil engineering, and medical device design are joining forces to create a working prototype.

“The idea is to develop a low-cost patch that works as an electronic sensing device, that could be easily applied to the skin without help from medical professionals,” explained Sarah Swisher, the lead PI on the project and assistant professor in electrical and computer engineering. “The device would provide information about specific biomarkers to help medical providers make decisions about how to triage patients, and how to treat each patient most effectively. This could be a game changer for pre-hospital care.”

Using transdermal microneedles that probe the fluid just underneath the skin, the patch would be far less invasive than existing blood sampling methods. Moreover, it could track biological markers over a period of time, such as during the ambulance ride to the hospital.

“So when you arrive, the doctors don’t just get a single snapshot in time, but actually have information about how your biomarkers have changed over the last 10, 15, or 30 minutes,” said Swisher.

Initially, Swisher’s team will focus on potassium-ion analysis, which is essential to monitoring heart conditions. From there, the sky’s the limit. “There are lots of biomarkers in that interstitial fluid that are relevant for analyzing a patient’s status, related to stress, metabolism, the oxygenation of blood and tissues. If we can detect potassium in this miniaturized sensor over a long period of time, we’re confident that we can expand it to analyze ions for other molecules.”

Other than continuous glucose monitors, commercial wearables for interstitial fluid analysis are few and far between. Swisher dreams of the day when patients can walk into the ER, stick on a patch, and voila, numerous biomarkers are transmitted to the nursing station in real-time. Along with greatly improving emergency care, the patch could reduce health inequities in medically underserved populations, where many hospitals are short staffed and access to low-cost diagnostic tools is limited.

In addition to civilian use, an easy-to-apply sensor patch that records and transmits data could be extremely beneficial in military applications when soldiers are injured on the battlefield far from medical facilities.

Swisher has expertise in designing and fabricating flexible electronics and biosensors. Her co-investigators have combined expertise in ion-selective electrodes, electrochemical sensors, medical device design, and emergency medicine. Working together, they have the knowledge needed to develop a successful prototype for future clinical trials.

“We’re excited,” Swisher said. “The college’s new InterS&Ections seed grant program gives faculty the chance to pull people together with complementary strengths and come up with a vision on how we could make a global impact.”