Scholars on scooters

Watch out: The students zinging around campus on electric scooters might actually be doing homework.

This past spring 13 students were part of a new class for both graduates and undergraduates called CE 186: Design of Cyber Physical Systems. The scooters are tools for learning larger concepts about energy, transportation and vehicle-to-grid systems.

The first step in smart scooter system building requires equipping the vehicles with sensors to capture commute data including speed and amperage draw; the students also track other energy-related data such as rider weight and elevation changes.  

“This class is special for undergraduates because they collect their own data and dealing with data that isn’t perfect,” says Steve Glaser, civil and environmental engineering professor, CITRIS director of intelligent infrastructure and one of the course’s creators. “They are accustomed to homework assignments where everything works out nicely in the end.”

Once the students had manageable data, they shipped to the cloud for further computation. “Students enter their desired destination through a web interface, which will then recommend an optimal charging profile based on the real-time cost of electricity and required energy needs,” says Scott Moura, who was recruited to join the CEE faculty last year because of his expertise in control systems, electrified vehicles and the smart grid.

Rather than just plugging the scooter in and walking away for several hours, the system allowed students to turn the charging on and off depending on the level of charge needed. It also allowed them to take advantage of larger charging timeframes. They might choose to draw energy when the rates on the grid are lowest, during non-peak hours. Or, they can instruct their system to charge only when renewable energy is available on the grid.

Then “the solution streams out of the cloud into the CITRIS Invention Lab through the embedded computers there and onto the Arduino boards that control the scooters. So students get to build the entire computing chain,” says Raja Sengupta, a CEE professor and another co-creator of the class.

“The bigger vision behind CE 186 is to train the next generation of engineers,” says Moura, who recently received a National Science Foundation grant to speed charging of lithium-ion batteries. “Today, infrastructure is not just about concrete and bridges; it also involves communication and control. The next generation of civil engineers needs to think from a systems perspective about how these physical systems can be integrated—using the cloud, wireless sensing and control algorithms to mesh all of these things together.”