We look back at some of the highlights from 2020

As 2021 dawns, we look back at some of the interesting, ground-breaking, and innovative projects our Department was involved and/or students from our Faculty completed. Here are some noteworthy highlights: 

  1. Cooperative collision avoidance for unmanned aerial vehicles
  2. Reinforcement Learning in the Minecraft Gaming Environment
  3. High-altitude balloon missions conducted by final-year E&E engineering students
  4. Using a hidden Markov model to detect inshore Bryde’s whale short pulse calls
  5. Spinning solar sail: Solar Sailing Missions
  6. Electric vehicles could reduce carbon emissions without straining electricity grid using solar photovoltaic charging systems
  7. Faculty of Engineering researches microwave irradiation as an alternative form of sterilisation for Rooibos tea
  8. Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering partners with Mexican Institute for K-band expansion studies
  9. Innovative finger-prick test for the early detection of cancer
  10. Save the rhino – Stellenbosch University conducts ground-breaking research to find a durable solution

The Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering forms part of the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University. We pride ourselves in offering quality education to both undergraduate and postgraduate students in the fields of Informatics, Energy, Robotics, Telecommunication and, since 2020, Data Engineering as a new specialisation stream. We offer world-class postgraduate supervision for projects in a variety of fields including Electrical Energy Systems, Electronics and Electromagnetics, Computers and Control Systems, Signal Processing and Machine Learning.

1. Cooperative collision avoidance for unmanned aerial vehicles

Similar to technologies that initially started at a military base, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will soon be affecting civilian life. To date, several industries have built and commercially supplied low-end AVs technologies for various non-military purposes. However, most of these UAVs are recreational and remote-controlled toys that only fly in secluded areas with minimum impact on the airspace. However, the rate at which technology is advancing, civilian UAVs are no longer restricted to recreational use. The research discussed in this post therefore presents the design, implementation, and verification of two types of cooperative collision avoidance algorithms for UAVs in multi-aircraft conflict scenarios.

2. Reinforcement Learning in the Minecraft Gaming Environment

Researchers are keen to solve the challenge of a robot successfully interacting with an external environment. In this regard, the progress made in reinforcement learning (RL), such as Atari 2600 from Google DeepMind, AlphaGo winning the current world champion in the board game Go, and OpenAI winning a 5v5 match against the top players in the world in Dota 2, RL has become a powerful tool to achieve superhuman results in games. RL agents appear to be able to master any game, but what about a game such as Minecraft. The long-term objective of this research is to use RL to teach an agent to survive a day-night cycle in the Minecraft gaming environment. To achieve this, the research tests a new method, referred to as dojo learning based on curriculum learning, against current methods to progress one step closer to the mentioned objective.

3. High-altitude balloon missions conducted by final-year E&E engineering students

The Electric and Electronic Engineering Department at Stellenbosch University has an ongoing programme of high-altitude balloon (HAB) missions to conduct experiments in near-space conditions. Every year, final-year electrical and electronic engineering students from Stellenbosch University conduct a HAB experiment.  A weather balloon with a payload attached is launched from Saldanha Airfield.  The video below shows the experiment with the successful recovery of the payload Video playback is 5 times real-time.

4. Using a hidden Markov model to detect inshore Bryde’s whale short pulse calls

As the interest in studying cetaceans’ sounds increases, so has the motivation to develop different automated sound detection and classification methods. One such technique is passive acoustic monitoring (PAM) which we have discussed elsewhere. However, when using PAM, the collected sound datasets are usually large and impractical to manually analyse and detect. This is where the hidden Markov model (HMM) becomes particularly useful as a tool to automatically detect and classify these cetaceans’ sounds. This post discusses the HMM as part of the models to detect mysticetes’ and cetaceans’ pulse calls.

5. Spinning solar sail: Solar Sailing Missions

Our blog series on solar sail technology commenced with a brief overview and introduction to solar sailing as well as the controlling mechanisms of sailcrafts followed by an investigation of the deployment of a spinning solar sail, its theoretical dynamics and its practical aspects. In this final post, we look more closely at some of the different sail satellites that have been deployed successfully. 

6. Electric vehicles could reduce carbon emissions without straining electricity grid using solar photovoltaic charging systems

Increased Global emissions resulted in stronger efforts to reduce emissions in order to stabilise the global warming benchmark at 1.5°C. Increased global emissions resulted in stronger efforts to reduce emissions in order to stabilise the global warming benchmark at 1.5°C. In order for South Africa to meet its global warming target, it will have to reduce emissions by 32% in the next 10 years. In response, recent research examined “the potential impact of electrification of the vehicle fleet in South Africa” which is explained in more detail in our latest blog.

7. Faculty of Engineering researches microwave irradiation as an alternative form of sterilisation for Rooibos tea

Rooibos tea has a high microbial count that is mostly as a result of how it is processed. The process occurs in an open-air environment where the Rooibos tea is handled and exposed to many sources of contamination. However, South Africa and Europe both have certain standards specifying the maximum microbial count allowed per gram of Rooibos tea. To adhere to these standards, and as mentioned above, the Rooibos tea undergoes steam treatment as steam is an effective form of sterilisation. This, however, affects the tea’s colour and flavour. To address this, microwave irradiation was investigated as an alternative form of sterilisation.

8. Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering partners with Mexican Institute for K-band expansion studies

The Large Millimeter Telescope (LMT) is the world’s largest single-dish steerable millimetre wave telescope. The Mexican government, under the leadership of Prof Laurent Lionard of the National Autonomous University of Mexico, funded a project to investigate the feasibility of adding a K-band receiver to the telescope cabin. Prof De Villiers, of the Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Stellenbosch University, in close collaboration with William Cerfonteyn, a PhD student, form part of the team who was tasked with developing an optical design of the required reflectors for this project.

9. Innovative finger-prick test for the early detection of cancer

Previously we wrote about the ground-breaking bio-sensors being developed to diagnose certain medical conditions. The proof-of-concept nanowire biological sensor (or nanochip) can identify any pathogen or bacteria such as e. coli, Salmonella or cholera in 10 to 15 minutes after being swallowed. This sensor can ultimately be used to accurately diagnose patients during an epidemic or outbreak using a combination of nanotechnology and microbiology. In layman’s terms, it means soon you will be able to swallow a nanochip that can diagnose a bacterial infection faster and more cost-efficient than traditional tests such as bloodwork and endoscopies and put less stress on the body’s immune system. You will be able to isolate specific bacteria to test for. For example, if your concern is water quality, you can set up the sensor to only look for e. coli.

10. Save the rhino – Stellenbosch University conducts ground-breaking research to find a durable solution

The rhinoceros has few predators but as a result of poaching are nearing extinction. The development of devices that can monitor the behaviour of rhinos has several challenges. It will take the best tools we can design and continued funding to keep this beautiful species from extinction.

We are excited to welcome our new students later in 2021 and see what ground we can break with our innovative approach to research and teaching. More information for prospective undergraduate students can be found here.

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