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WIP: Collaborative Undergraduate Research Project to Develop a Remotely-Accessible, Open-Source, Portable, Software-Defined Radio-Based Antenna Range for Research, Education, and Outreach

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2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access


Virtual Conference

Publication Date

July 26, 2021

Start Date

July 26, 2021

End Date

July 19, 2022

Conference Session

Electrical and Computer Division Poster Session

Tagged Division

Electrical and Computer

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Paper Authors


Carl B. Dietrich Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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A licensed Professional Engineer in Virginia, Carl Dietrich earned a BS EE degree from Texas A&M University, and MS EE and PhD EE degrees from Virginia Tech. He has taught courses in software defined radio, communications systems, electronics, and electromagnetic fields. He has also taught short courses on software defined radio since 2007, covering fundamental concepts and enabling technologies in addition to the use of open source software to develop and run SDR applications. In addition, Dr. Dietrich has performed and directed research in the areas of cognitive radio, software defined radio (SDR), multi-antenna systems, and radio wave propagation, and has authored or co-authored more than 50 peer-reviewed journal and conference papers. He has worked at Virginia Tech, Bell Northern Research, and the Defense Information Systems Agency. He has served as chair of the Wireless Innovation Forum's Educational Special Interest Group, is a member of ASEE and Eta Kappa Nu, Senior Member of IEEE, and an Extra class amateur radio operator.

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Nicholas F. Polys Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University

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Nicholas F. Polys is Director of Visual Computing with Virginia Tech Research Computing Group and Affiliate Research Professor in the Department of Computer Science. He has developed interactive 3D graphic content and systems for over 15 years. His research interests lie at the center of graphics and Human Computer Interaction: the intersection of visualization, virtual environments, and perception. After his undergraduate research in Cognitive Science at Vassar College (1996), he jumped into the networked information space of the WWW developing audio, visual, and 3D assets and software. His doctoral work at Virginia Tech (2006) examined perceptual cues and layout behaviors for Information-Rich Virtual Environments for desktop to immersive platforms.

He is a member of ACM, IEEE Computer Society, and the Web3D Consortium. He is a co-author of the international standard (ISO) Extensible 3D (X3D), elected Director and President of the Web3D Consortium, and Chair of the Web3D User Interface Working Group.

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Christian W. Hearn Weber State University

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Dr. Hearn is an Associate Professor of Electrical Engineering at Weber State University. He received a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Virginia Tech. He was a member of the Virginia Tech Antenna Group during his plan of study. Before returning to graduate school, Mr. Hearn was a mechanical engineer for the Naval Surface Warfare Center. He is a licensed mechanical engineer in the state of Virginia.

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Kenneth Reid University of Indianapolis

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Kenneth Reid is the Associate Dean and Director of the R.B. Annis School of Engineering at the University of Indianapolis and an affiliate Associate Professor in Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. He is active in engineering within K-12, serving on the TSA Board of Directors. He and his coauthors were awarded the William Elgin Wickenden award for 2014, recognizing the best paper in the Journal of Engineering Education. He was awarded an IEEE-USA Professional Achievement Award in 2013 for designing the nation's first BS degree in Engineering Education. He was named NETI Faculty Fellow for 2013-2014, and the Herbert F. Alter Chair of Engineering (Ohio Northern University) in 2010. His research interests include success in first-year engineering, engineering in K-12, introducing entrepreneurship into engineering, and international service and engineering. He has written texts in design, general engineering and digital electronics, including the text used by Project Lead the Way.

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Joshua Alexéi García Sheridan Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University Orcid 16x16

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Joshua García Sheridan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Engineering Education at Virginia Tech. He received his Bachelor's of Science in Electrical Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His current research work includes evaluation of remote learning sites for radio engineering coursework, and his current research interests for dissertation center around teachers' pedagogical choice to engage in engineering activities within the K-12 system.

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1. Clear description of the objectives and motivation for the contribution to ECE education

Antennas are essential components of many vital. In this project, a team of undergraduate engineering students at a research university are operating and enhancing a low-cost, portable, open-source antenna range developed by one of the university’s alumni and his colleagues at another, teaching-focused institution. The enhanced antenna range and the project itself provide opportunities for hands-on learning, remote laboratory exercises, and experiential and / or project-based learning. Further, it has potential to help students, including students who have visual impairments, develop spatial skills that are not only valuable but required in many engineering careers.

2. Relevant background including literature search examples if appropriate

The effectiveness of project-based learning has been studied extensively. We expect that students will gain similar benefits from this team project that integrates tasks and subsystems that involve multiple sub-disciplines within electrical engineering, computer engineering, and computer science.

The range itself will serve as a resource interactive, remote as well as in-person, hands-on learning. Few systems that serve either role have been developed for electromagnetics education generally or antenna education specifically, and still fewer are publicly available. A literature search identified three alternatives including two commercially produced antenna ranges for use in labs and a remotely accessible, industrial-grade antenna range at another research university. One of the companies appears to have ceased operation. The other company provides well-equipped antenna measurement stations, but at a cost in the low tens of thousands of US dollars per station. The principal investigator whose team built the university-based range indicated that it is currently used as needed for research, and administrative responsibilities had prevented the level of effort necessary to publicize the range. Further, the investigator indicated that engineering educators might prefer to use resources that they develop themselves.

Based on the literature search, the portable range is poised to fill a unique niche in antenna education, as a low-cost, customizable system that can be used locally or remotely as a tool for education and research and also as a subject of research and development projects.

3. Description of any assessment methods used to evaluate the effectiveness of the contribution

We have yet to measure effectiveness or impact of the range or the project itself. However, it is being used in a new course in antennas at the university that developed the range. Additionally, approximately 20 undergraduate students who are working on the range at the research university have used a series of online modules to become more familiar with radio frequency systems and signals and the radio frequency spectrum. Pre- and post-quiz scores of the project participants on these modules have been recorded, together with each student’s decision to opt in or out of related research.

4. Statement of results

The team of undergraduate researchers are developing a proof-of-concept remote access and monitoring capability for the range as a first step towards its use in remote learning and research. Currently the range is accessible using a standard web browser to provide access to a remote Linux desktop. To monitor the range’s operation, the range or a co-located spectrum analyzer can be viewed using a webcam and associated application. The students have increased modularity of the range’s Python-based motor-control software, and have updated the software to work with a more recent version of the language. The students have also developed software to read antenna pattern measurement files and convert them to a format that can be used to render the patterns using three-dimensional graphics or even produce three-dimensional physical antenna pattern models using additive manufacturing.

Preliminary results of the pre- and post-tests for the online modules indicate that participants had substantially increased average scores after each module. The anonymized data will be analyzed for inclusion in a full paper, and results may be compared with those of groups of students who used the modules in other settings.

Future work includes development of a secure web interface that does not require direct access to the operating system on the range computer but does allow remote operation of the range and storage of measurement parameters and results. We also plan to enhance the range’s portability, to increase its utility for use in classroom instruction and in STEM outreach. Additionally, the students are investigating techniques to improve measurements, including investigation of the tradeoff between speed and accuracy for measurements of common types of directional and omnidirectional antennas that can be achieved by varying angular resolution of the measurements and possibly interpolating between measurement points, and mitigation of antenna pattern distortion that is caused by reflected signals.

Dietrich, C. B., & Polys, N. F., & Hearn, C. W., & Reid, K., & García Sheridan, J. A. (2021, July), WIP: Collaborative Undergraduate Research Project to Develop a Remotely-Accessible, Open-Source, Portable, Software-Defined Radio-Based Antenna Range for Research, Education, and Outreach Paper presented at 2021 ASEE Virtual Annual Conference Content Access, Virtual Conference.

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