Gladys West: Where’s my satellite? Where’s my child? #BlackHistoryMonth

Satellite image of the Earth at night

by Paul Curzon, Queen Mary University of London

Satellites are critical to much modern technology, and especially GPS. It allows our smartphones, laptops and cars to work out their exact position on the surface of the earth. This is central to all mobile technology, wearable or not, that relies on knowing where you are, from plotting a route your nearest Indian restaurant to telling you where a person you might want to meet is. Many, many people were involved in creating GPS, but it was only in Black History Month of 2017 when the critical part Gladys West played became widely known.

Work hard, go far

As a child Gladys worked with her family in the fields of their farm in rural Virginia. That wasn’t the life she wanted, so she worked hard through school, leaving as the top student. She won a scholarship to university, and then landed a job as a mathematician at a US navy base.

There she solved the maths problems behind the positioning of satellites. She worked closely with the programmers to write the code to do calculations based on her maths. Nine times out of ten the results that came back weren’t exactly right so much of her time was spent working out what was going wrong with the programs, as it was vital the results were very accurate.

Seasat and Geosat

Her work on the Seasat satellite won her a commendation. It was a revolutionary satellite designed to remotely monitor the oceans. It collected data about things like temperature, wind speed and wind direction at the sea’s surface, the heights of waves, as well as sensing data about sea ice. This kind of remote sensing has since had a massive impact on our understanding of climate change. Gladys specifically worked on the satellite’s altimeter. It was a radar-based sensor that allowed Seasat to measure its precise distance from the surface of the ocean below. She continued this work on later remote sensing satellites too, including Geosat, a later earth observation satellite.

Gladys West and Sam Smith look over data from the Global Positioning System,
which Gladys helped develop. Photo credit US Navy, 1985, via Wikipedia.

GPS

Knowing the positions of satellites is the foundation for GPS. The way GPS works is that our mobile receivers pick up a timed signal from several different satellites. Calculating where we are can only be done if you first know very precisely where those satellites were when they sent the signal. That is what Gladys’ work provided.

GPS Watches

You can now buy, for example, buy GPS watches, allowing you to wear a watch that watches where you are. They can also be used by people with dementia, who have bad memory problems, allowing their carers to find them if they go out on their own but are then confused about where they are. They also allow parents to know where their kids are all the time. Do you think that’s a good use?

Since so much technology now relies on knowing exactly where we are, Gladys’ work has had a massive impact on all our lives.

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and a copy can also be found on page 14 of Issue 25 of CS4FN, “Technology worn out (and about)“, on wearable computing, which can be downloaded as a PDF, along with all our other free material, here: https://cs4fndownloads.wordpress.com/  

This article is also republished during Black History Month and is part of our Diversity in Computing series, celebrating the different people working in computer science (Gladys West’s page).


This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.

Microwave health check – using wearable tech to monitor elite athletes’ health ^JB

Microwave health check

by Tina Chowdhury, Institute of Bioengineering, School of Engineering and Materials Science, Queen Mary University of London

Black and white photo of someone sweating after exertion
Image by un-perfekt from Pixabay

Microwaves aren’t just useful for cooking your dinner. Passing through your ears they might help check your health in future, especially if you are an elite athlete. Bioengineer Tina Chowdhury tells us about her multidisciplinary team’s work with the National Physics Laboratory (NPL).   Lots of wearable gadgets work out things about us by sensing our bodies. They can tell who you are just by tapping into your biometric data, like fingerprints, features of your face or the patterns in your eyes. They can even do some of this remotely without you even knowing you’ve been identified. Smart watches and fitness trackers tell you how fast you are running, how fit you are and whether you are healthy, how many calories you have burned and how well you are sleeping or not sleeping. They also work out things about your heart, like how well it beats. This is done using optical sensor technology, shining light at your skin and measuring how much is scattered by the blood flowing through it.  

Microwave Sensors

With PhD student, Wesleigh Dawsmith, and electronic engineer, microwave and antennae specialist, Rob Donnan, we are working on a different kind of sensor to check the health of elite athletes. Instead of using visible light we use invisible microwaves, the kind of radiation that gives microwave ovens their name. The microwave-based wearables have the potential to provide real-time information about how our bodies are coping when under stress, such as when we are exercising, similar to health checks without having to go to hospital. The technology measures how much of the microwaves are absorbed through the ear lobe using a microwave antenna and wireless circuitry. How much of the microwaves are absorbed is linked to being dehydrated when we sweat and overheat during exercise. We can also use the microwave sensor to track important biomarkers like glucose, sodium, chloride and lactate which can be a sign of dehydration and give warnings of illnesses like diabetes. The sensor sounds an alarm telling the person that they need medication, or are getting dehydrated, so need to drink some water. How much of the microwaves are absorbed is linked to being dehydrated

Making it work

We are working with with Richard Dudley at the NPL to turn these ideas into a wearable, microwave-based dehydration tracker. The company has spent eight years working on HydraSenseNPL a device that clips onto the ear lobe, measuring microwaves with a flexible antenna earphone.

Blue and yellow sine wave patterns representing light
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A big question is whether the ear device will become practical to actually wear while doing exercise, for example keeping a good enough contact with the skin. Another is whether it can be made fashionable, perhaps being worn as jewellery. Another issue is that the system is designed for athletes, but most people are not professional athletes doing strenuous exercise. Will the technology work for people just living their normal day-to-day life too? In that everyday situation, sensing microwave dynamics in the ear lobe may not turn out to be as good as an all-in-one solution that tracks your biometrics for the entire day. The long term aim is to develop health wearables that bring together lots of different smart sensors, all packaged into a small space like a watch, that can help people in all situations, sending them real-time alerts about their health.

This article was originally published on the CS4FN website and a copy can also be found on page 8 of Issue 25 of CS4FN, “Technology worn out (and about)“, on wearable computing, which can be downloaded as a PDF, along with all our other free material, here: https://cs4fndownloads.wordpress.com/  


 


This blog is funded through EPSRC grant EP/W033615/1.