When Victor A. Skormin gets ready to test sophisticated communications laser equipment he doesn’t flick any switches or twist any dials. It’s all done with mouse clicks and can be initiated from half-a-world-away via the Internet.
“When it comes to modern equipment, you never turn it on manually,” said Skormin, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the Thomas J. Watson School of Engineering and Applied Science. “It’s done with control panels on a computer and my keyboard could be on the other side of the earth.”
Skormin has used this simple insight to secure a $255,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop an Internet-accessible advanced laser communications research lab that can be used by anyone.
The result is that, with the click of a mouse, engineering students from China, Great Britain and the Czech Republic have tapped into Skormin’s Web page, typed in parameters and caused a piezo-electric mirror, part of a laser aiming device, in a Watson lab to move according to their instructions.
The grant that is the latest in a series from the NSF to Skormin to develop a new curriculum in satellite laser communications and create a virtual lab to accompany the program.
The equipment used by the students is part of a $1 million cache of equipment acquired by Skormin’s research team from the U.S. Air Force’s Rome Research Lab to support research on ways to make information systems secure through the use of laser technology.
While the work Skormin does for that project is classified, the equipment is not. Moreover, Internet access to the equipment is not via Internet 2, a restricted Web network used by member universities and industries. It is accessible by the commercial Internet open to everyone. One caution: The lab does not work with Netscape Navigator.
By opening the use of this equipment to the world, Skormin has partially solved a big problem for many engineering programs. He said the difference between a good undergraduate engineering program and the best program is the quality of the laboratories available to the students.
Knowing that he is working with students prone to exuberance Skormin said, “This is a system that cannot be damaged.”
The control program has built in limitations that will prevent students from accidentally fry the equipment by applying too much voltage. The system cannot be used by more than one person at a time, and BU researchers have first priority.
What they can do is investigate how laser beam steering systems respond to variable conditions. “This is like student experiments of very advanced schools,” Skormin said. In addition to getting near instantaneous feedback from their inputs, the students can have a 360 degree view the equipment they are using.