An interconnected future

The Sensor Systems and Internet of Things (IoT) Lab is helping companies define a post-pandemic recovery.

The Sensor Systems and Internet of Things (IoT) Lab at Mohawk College had only just got up and running when the pandemic struck. 

Initially, the lab’s leader, Dr. Esteve Hassan, Mohawk’s Industrial Research Chair for Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) Applications, thought COVID-19 might grind the lab’s burgeoning industrial partnerships to a halt. 

That worry soon evaporated. 

Hassan has been busy forming new applied research projects and partnerships over the last year, both inside and outside Ontario. 

“It seemed at first that COVID would slow things down, but the pace quickly resumed. While some of our current projects were planned before COVID, but many have been developed since.” 

The lab launched in mid-2019 after Hassan was announced as Canada’s first IIoT chair. That appointment came with $1million in applied research funding and a five-year term. Industry partners have added another $1million in funding and in-kind donations of critical software and hardware platforms,  equipment and training workshops to get the lab established.

When they work on projects, we see their spirit. They feel it is their own and what it feels like to be independent and to lead.

The lab, located in The Joyce Centre for Partnership & Innovation, specializes in smart sensor systems integration and module development, designing and developing embedded wireless computing systems for IoT and cyber-physical systems. 

The developed sensing processing systems produce data streams that feed artificial intelligence, machine learning, machine vision, deep learning and predictive maintenance platforms. 

The IoT, a vast network of almost $30 billion worth of connected devices worldwide, has recently been called more vital than ever in helping the world respond to the COVID-19 pandemic by underpinning a shift to remote functions in everything from health care to manufacturing and industrial productions. 

But designing and connecting these systems and making the best use of the resulting data is a complex, multi-layered process that is out of reach for the average company, says Hassan. That’s where the lab steps in. 

“Everyone now would like to have that intelligence and have that technology built into their production lines, so they are smarter and ahead of the game,” said Hassan. 

Through the lab, companies can explore options in a de-risked way, using up-to-date technology and equipment, and drawing on the expertise of faculty and staff and the skills, energy and ideas of students. 

The partner from the project owns any intellectual property that results. 

“For Mohawk, the goal is to open doors for our students and applied research is very effective at doing that.” 

Since the lab opened, it has been constantly hiring students to work on projects with industry partners. There are 10 underway, in addition to internal research and capstone work activities, says Hassan. 

The lab has grown to 25 students, working full-time, part-time and on co-ops. Faculty and technical staff oversee their work. 

“I tell the students all the time: ‘We learn more from you than you learn from us.’ They are bright, they have the initiative. Our partners are thrilled with the students because they are dedicated and passionate,” said Hassan. 

“When they work on projects, we see their spirit. They feel it is their own and what it feels like to be independent and to lead.” 

Partners often ask for students to come back to work on future phases and many projects lead directly to employment with industry partners, says Hassan. 

“That feedback warms our heart because we know we are on the right track.” 

Semee Kang, who finished her Computer Systems Technician Software Support program in December, worked on-site with Ancaster-based research partner Truck Sail Inc. The company manufacturers aerodynamic parts for the trucking industry and is working with Mohawk on an Android-powered sensor to improve the safety and fuel efficiency of transport trailers and straight trucks. 

Kang, a native of South Korea who came to Mohawk because of its reputation in experiential learning and co-ops, says she’s learned how the rigorous process of testing is crucial to product development. 

“I’ve learned all about that in the lab,” said Kang. “Working in the real world is different than assignments and meeting new people and the clients and making a network, that is important for me.” 

Sepehr Heydarian, who is in his second year of the Computer Systems Technician – Network Systems program, has been working in the IoT lab since 2019 when he was hired through the Campus Student Employment Program. 

He has worked as a system administrator and network administrator on a number of projects since then, often several at a time. 

“The ability that I found in myself by helping with these projects is that I can handle multiple projects at the same time, and do multiple tasks at the same time, which I wasn’t aware of before. Until you are in that position, you don’t know that about yourself.”

The future is automated. 

Jason Masters, Student

Safety protocols that include limits on how many students can be in the lab at once have slowed some of the hands-on work, says student Jason Masters, but design, simulation, and testing work has been ongoing. 

Masters has been working with industry partner Handling Specialty Inc. to develop vibration sensors to try to determine when an industrial lift is nearing failure. 

“The idea is to understand what is happening so you don’t have to keep replacing parts and the machine doesn’t have a catastrophic failure.” 

Another project Masters has been involved with during his time at Mohawk is with an artificial turf company out of Quebec that wanted a proof of concept for a way to automate cutting lines for sporting clients such as the NFL. 

Masters is in his last semester of Computer Engineering Technology – Mechatronic and part of the first cohort to graduate from that program. It includes three years of study, plus 16 months of co-op, and incorporates electrical, computer programming and networking, and robotics. 

His experience in the lab called on so much of what he learned in his program and has opened his eyes to the power of research, even when it doesn’t bear fruit, says Masters. 

“Sometimes failure is a success because you’ve proven something hasn’t worked.” 

The soft skills have been important, too, such as working independently, handling meetings with clients and meeting timelines. 

“Mohawk College teaches such up-to-date skills and that’s important because the technology is changing so fast,” said Masters. 

“Employers want to know you can apply what you’ve learned and you have some real-world experience.” 

Many lab projects begin with a relatively small idea that becomes a six-month prototyping project. Once that proof-of-concept is complete, most then grow into multi-year endeavours over several phases. 

The lab’s research agenda is in constant motion, says Hassan, because it’s driven by current and emerging needs. 

The lab works heavily in industrial environments, agriculture, energy, transportation, steel production, and aviation. Partners include giants such as IBM Canada and Siemens Canada and local enterprises such as CareGo Tek, Stelco, Schuyler Farms, and Truck Sail. 

The IoT lab collaborates with other postsecondary institutions across the country working in the field. 

Hassan also recently launched the Mohawk IoT Expert Board, leveraging expertise from colleagues from across the college to enhance the college’s IoT curriculum and support industry projects. 

Projects have already begun in collaboration with the Additive Manufacturing Innovation Centre (AMIC) and future projects are in the works with MEDIC (mHealth and ehealth Development and Innovation Centre), and the Energy and Power Innovation Centre (EPIC). 

Hassan anticipates that 2021 will be even busier in the lab, spurred by ever-increasing interest in IoT and a need for companies to recover from the economic impact of COVID-19. 

“The future is going to be automated. We’ve seen that over the last year with remote working and learning. IoT drives that in industrial settings,” he said. “IIoT is emerging in so many areas at the moment. We are expecting to see many more projects in the pipeline.”

Image: Left to right: Sepehr Heydarian, student; Dr. Esteve Hassan, IoT Research Chair; Jason Masters, student; Semee Kang, graduate

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