From rocket tests to flood relief

From rocket tests to flood relief

Rowan Engineering students help fix problems virtually.

NASA space launches do not come cheap -- simply testing the engines costs millions of dollars.

Likewise, shipboard fire control is a life and death matter that can cost the U.S. Navy dearly.

To help test rocket engines and maintain safer ships, NASA and the Navy in 2008 provided Rowan's College Engineering roughly $400,000 for research in virtual reality. Combining the NASA and Navy grants with a grant of nearly $400,000 more from the National Science Foundation, the college purchased the Cave Automated Virtual Environment, a room-sized device that simulates any number of scenarios - from engine room fires in the Persian Gulf to Space Shuttle launches in Florida - all in a fully immersive, three-dimensional, computer-generated system.

Rowan engineering faculty and students are now harnessing the power of the CAVE® to help fix a problem much closer to home - rampant flooding and sewer runoff in a Camden neighborhood.

Dr. Shreekanth Mandayam, Professor of Computer and Electrical Engineering, said initial studies were completed last year mapping flood conditions in Camden's historic Cramer Hill neighborhood. The work, co-directed by Dr.Yusuf Mehta, Associate Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, involved 3D visualization and analysis as well as door-to-door canvassing of residents, visual inspections, and photography.

"Our students focused on 50 blocks," Mandayam said. "For over a year we went out and surveyed the entire area, every blade of grass."

The CAVE®, a 10' x 10' x 10' cube-like device in Rowan's South Jersey Technology Park about a mile west of the Glassboro campus, is fitted with 12 infrared cameras, four $60,000-projectors and a seven-computer cluster that creates virtual reality environments in which complex problems may be tested and solved.

Mandayam said any number of scenarios may be fed into the computer - from the rainfall effects of a massive storm to the benefits of installing new sewer lines or faster draining soils and grasses.

"One of the things the CAVE® is most useful for is getting quality answers to ‘what if' questions," he said. "One question we might answer is what if we replace a combined stormwater/sewer line - which is what they have now - with a dedicated stormwater line. That type of information can be very helpful before you make an actual bricks and mortar investment."

Mandayam said aside from the initial cost of a CAVE® system - and Rowan is the only college or university in New Jersey to have one - the virtual reality model is one that is making more and more sense for more and more real world problems.

In addition to infrastructure issues such as those confronting Camden or mechanical issues such as those faced by NASA and the Navy, the frontier for virtual reality is virtually limitless, Mandayam said. When the Cooper Medical School of Rowan University begins classes in 2012 it could even be used for virtual anatomy courses, he said.

Manny Delgado, Executive Director of the Cramer Hill Community Development Corporation, said the partnership between his group, neighbors, other community improvement groups, the Camden city government, Rowan University and others is already producing results.With regard to the Camden project, which is focused on Von Neida Park, an area soiled by raw sewage during heavy rains, the initial modeling phase is complete and the next phase, which will focus on mitigating the flooding, now begins. The area, bisected by River Road (so named because it was built directly atop the old Baldwin Creek), may always be prone to flooding but good 21st Century engineering could direct storm waters away, Mandayam said."The future is here," Mandayam said.

Engaging the community

"For the next step, remediation, we have a million dollar grant but that's only going to go so far," he said. "Through virtual reality we're able to see what will work best before we put the pipes in to alleviate the flooding."

In addition to increasing drainage capacity, planners could build containers to capture some of the rainfall and harvest it for urban gardening and other uses, Delgado said.

Cliff Kaelin, a junior Electrical and Computer Engineering major, said after more than a year being involved with the project it's still a big thrill.

"Working with the technology is very cool," said Kaelin, 21, of Malaga. "But going to Camden, working with the people there, knowing you're helping someone, that's very rewarding."


See a YouTube video of the Cramer Hill VR project.