SIUC RESEARCH embedded systems
Testing the circuits – Students and faculty design and study intricate electrical components like this as part of their work for the Consortium of Embedded Systems at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. Photo by Jeff Garner (Courtesy)

Electronic embedded systems are everywhere. They can do everything from controlling manufacturing plant systems, to tracking inventory or wildlife.

Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, Southern Illinois University Carbondale is now home to a national consortium of electronics research centered on making embedded systems better, cheaper and more reliable.

The Consortium for Embedded Systems is a joint effort between SIUC's College of Engineering, the Fulton School of Engineering at Arizona State University and private industry, said Spyros Tragoudas, professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and leader of the effort at SIUC.

The consortium is the only one of its kind funded by NSF in the nation, he said. That means other universities that wish to conduct research in this way will have to join the center and meet the requirements to do so.

"It was a very tough competition and I'm very happy NSF approved it," said Tragoudas, who works in the computer engineering specialization. "They felt we have good quality faculty here, so that by itself is big. This puts SIUC in the forefront in this area."

Embedded systems use embedded microprocessors to control systems and provide feedback. Research issues for the consortium include finding ways to achieve and maintain access to the microprocessors, testing and verifying their reliability. It also involves the design, size and weight of such microprocessors, which may be critical based on their intended application.

For example, some companies are developing microprocessors that are small and light enough to attach to butterflies to study their movements. On the other end of the scale, embedded systems are used to control the flight of a rocket as it races toward space.

Like all computer and electronic technologies, embedded systems are rapidly evolving, which is why Tragoudas and others sought to create an NSF center for studying them.

"This consortium is needed because this field is fluid and ever changing. Nothing is static and the changes are drastic, month by month," he said. NSF will fund the effort for up to 10 years.

Since SIUC received the grant in 2009, several companies have signed on as partners. Some of those include Caterpillar Inc., Dickey-John, Intel Ultra Mobility Group of California, EMAC Inc. of Carbondale and Wildlife Materials of Murphysboro. Intel's Microprocessor Research Laboratory in Oregon, and the U.S. Navy also are involved.

Tragoudas recently returned from Rockford, where he visited with Hamilton-Sundstrand, which also is interested in joining the consortium.

Industry partners pay a fee annually for membership in the consortium and to sit on its Industrial Advisory Board, Tragoudas said. The board will select projects proposed by for funding.

"Several companies have also joined through Arizona State University," he said.

"Research by SIUC investigators on security, embedded control, intra processor communication, processor testing, special-purpose embedded sensors, analysis of signals for security-related aspects and imaging-based analysis have been of very high priority to member companies."

SIUC is known for its ability to test the reliability and speed of microprocessors, as well as their power consumption, Tragoudas said. Faculty from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering will participate in the consortium, and faculty from other departments might also eventually become involved.

SIUC faculty and students currently are working on 10 projects funded through the consortium. Six University faculty members, 12 graduate students and two undergraduates are involved.

Tragoudas said the consortium boosts research opportunities for the University and raises SIUC's overall profile.

"Faculty and students get to participate with industry in research and development that otherwise would have been very difficult to accomplish," he said. "This leads to more and higher-quality job opportunities for SIUC graduates. It also improves the image and visibility of SIUC nationally and internationally, as this is the only NSF center in the USA for embedded microelectronics."

Industry partners, each of whom must provide at least $25,000 to join, will work with the consortium in a variety of ways, including providing internships to students who will be paid through the grant by their respective university. The internships will give companies a head start on recruiting academically talented students to eventually work there.

"This is more attractive to students, too, " Tragoudas said. "So this kind of center helps attracts students and helps companies recruit qualified individuals inexpensively."

The consortium solicits proposals from qualified faculty based on the interests of companies that are its members. The member companies then review the proposals and recommend to Tragoudas and his counterpart at ASU which proposals it funds, based on each proposal's merits and competitiveness. The NSF also provides matching funds for the research.

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