Intelligent airports and greener smart phones: award-winning Cambridge innovation



Airport queues. No one likes them, but in the modern world we’ve come to accept them as part of our travel routine. Equally, many people these days would struggle without their smart phones, but they take a toll on the environment and are expensive to produce.

Cambridge research that aims to tackle these issues has been celebrated at the UK ICT Pioneers Competition, an Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council initiative which recognises the work of exceptional PhD students and researchers in the information and communications technologies.

The intelligent airport

As demand for flights increases, airports are becoming increasingly congested, but environmental concerns make expansion a contentious issue. Sithamparanathan Sabesan, from the Department of Engineering, believes that tagging could provide an answer. The real-time, accurate identification of passengers and their luggage to within a metre of their locations would dramatically increase efficiency in security checks, lost luggage recovery, delayed passengers and the daily ebb and flow of air travel.

‘Passive’ tags have no batteries, making them viably cheap to produce; the key is devising a reliable method of detecting these tags with such accuracy, and over much greater distances than previously possible. Sabesan says he and his collaborators – Dr Michael Crisp, Prof. Richard Penty and Prof. Ian White – have cracked it using radio frequencies, and they’ve created a proof of principle demonstrator to show it works.

“Our demonstrator shows that this system could be 100 per cent accurate, as well as locating passive tags to within a metre, overtaking current conventional systems,” says Sabesan. “These breakthroughs are paving the way for a wide range of new applications. Key players in retail, airlines, manufacturers and document tracking have offered us trials, which we expect to carry out in 12-24 months.”

It is predicted that the Real Time Locations System (RTLS) could save airlines in excess of £400m, as well as significantly reducing the now traditional airport waiting times. Other industries have also shown interest in the project. Retail groups are looking at the technology with a view to shrinking checkout queues and reducing shoplifting. Sabesan, who came to Cambridge to work with University spin-off company ARM Ltd before beginning his PhD in 2008, won the Connected World category at the ICT awards. He currently has two patents pending for his work and has just been elected to a junior research fellowship at Girton College.

Green touchscreens

The Innovation for Sustainability category was won by Jens Christensen, also from the Department of Engineering, for his research into acoustic pulse recognition, and its application in the world of smart phones. Whilst the sight of people tapping and swiping at their mobile phone screen has become commonplace, it is the noises and vibrations resulting from these actions that Christensen is interested in.

By processing the various sounds into commands such select, scroll, zoom etc, the technology developed by Christensen and his colleagues at Input Dynamics converts every external edge of the phone into a touch-sensitive surface. The software uses existing microphones that most handsets carry, so it can be fitted with a few tweaks to enhance functionality and even add touch command capabilities to non-touch phones in a cost-effective way.

“Current touchscreen implementations rely on compounds that are in limited supply and consequently extremely expensive, which has an impact on both the environment and the consumer,” says Christensen. “Our technology TouchDevice™ dispenses with all of this by making better use of the hardware already present in the device.”

The possible applications for the technology are vast as, in theory, walls and tables could be activated using microphones and the acoustic software. Could this potentially spell the end for such everyday staples as the light switch and the
TV remote?

“My research has applications far beyond what I have been able to imagine. This technology is highly customisable and any surface could potentially be made active, so that the technology can adapt to the user rather than the other way around.”

Christensen went on to take an additional prize at the ICT Pioneer awards, following a pitch to a ‘Dragons Den’ style panel of academics and industry experts. TouchDevice™ was voted by the panel to have the strongest commercial case, with Chief Executive of EPSRC Professor David Delpy describing the technology as “a win for both the customers and industry, fulfilling an unmet customer demand and satisfying the industry’s need for newer and cheaper technologies”.