The Cyber-Physical Systems Research Center celebrates its first anniversary

Prof. Sanfelice and a student in the lab.
James McGirk

The Cyber-Physical Systems Research Center (CPSRC) at the University of California, Santa Cruz celebrated its first anniversary this summer and held its second annual kickoff event in October. To mark the occasion, the Center’s Director, Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Ricardo Sanfelice explained the essence of cyber-physical systems and described the Center’s formation, first year successes, and plans for the future.

Formally established in 2017, the CPSRC engages in foundational and applied research in key areas of cyber-physical systems. There are now 38 faculty members associated with the Center, in disciplines ranging from electrical engineering to psychology.

“Cyber-physical systems are engineering systems that involve computers, networks, and physics simultaneously,” Sanfelice explained. A familiar example to many UC Santa Cruz students and alumni is the UC Santa Cruz Bus Tracking System (BTS). This system tracks individual buses in real time on a map using a combination of mobile physical systems (buses, base stations, and satellites) and networks.

To Sanfelice, UC Santa Cruz seemed like an excellent place to establish a Cyber-Physical Systems Research Center. “We have faculty here who have experience in most areas of cyber-physical systems,” he said. “We have experts in algorithms, sensors, actuators, networks, human-machine interaction, and many more. The combined expertise of our faculty in theory and applications is unique.”

“When I got here I was doing hybrid systems work on my own,” Sanfelice said. This is a discipline that spans a poetic range of systems that includes a firefly’s glow and human locomotion. “As I came to understand the potential relationships we had with industry in nearby Silicon Valley and the expertise we had available at UC Santa Cruz, and as my own research became much more mathematical but I was still tackling problems at the interface of networks and physics, I realized we needed more collaboration, and more synergy between departments and divisions: That was the central organizing effort behind the Center.”

Key research areas of the CPSRC include autonomous systems, human sensing, and interconnected things. Sanfelice names a few projects involving autonomous transportation: Professor Katia Obraczka’s group works on intelligent transportation, allowing vehicles to find routes efficiently and guide users to them. Professor Roberto Manduchi uses cognitive and vision-based technologies and algorithms to provide wayfinding systems for the blind. Professor Jim Whitehead, meanwhile, is working on a project with Ford Motor Company to create synthetic driving environments for testing algorithms.

Sanfelice’s own work with the Center involves one of the most confounding problems with autonomous vehicles: programming the vehicle’s algorithms to quickly adapt to unexpected conditions, such as an emergency.

“It’s not as simple as just braking,” Sanfelice said. “You have all these challenges of how to use the information in your surroundings to make decisions to keep you and everybody else safe.”

An important consideration for these algorithms is predicting another driver’s intentions. “We’re thinking of creating algorithms to understand drivers’ intentions,” Sanfelice said. “We do a pretty good job of identifying the corner cases—such as ‘ah, this is a very aggressive driver’—and if you see an aggressive driver you pay attention; maybe avoid them or, if you’re also aggressive too, you might compete. But others are harder to classify. A lot of identifying intention is subjective.”

Besides autonomous systems, the Center specializes in human sensing technologies: biomedical sensor networks, human-computer interaction for special needs patients, assistive technologies for the visually impaired and rehabilitative robotics, and Interconnected Things: distributed sensing, wireless communication protocols, mobile sensing, cloud computing, internet, working and human-computer interaction.

The Center has attracted a number of prominent speakers for its seminar series and has been generating patents,sponsoring student teams, and events throughout the school year. One such team is Slugbotics, a team of undergraduate engineers designing and building a remotely operated submersible to explore the ecologically unique Monterey Bay shelf just offshore as part of the Marine Advanced Technology Education challenge.

Last Spring the Center ran the CITRIS/CPAR Control Theory and Automation Symposium, where students and faculty presented research to an audience of about eighty, which included attendees from other UC campuses and elsewhere across the state. This year, Sanfelice plans to build on their success and prepare the way for consortia between other universities and industrial partners creating the potential for very large collaborative projects.

Sanfelice also hopes to form cooperative research partnerships with industry through the National Science Foundation’s Industry-University Cooperative Research Centers (IUCRC) program. The program facilitates industry-relevant research through long-term multi-member partnerships among universities, industry, and government. NSF provides seed funding for the program, as well as the procedural framework for membership and operations. “An IUCRC can be a really fruitful partnership,” said Sanfelice. “Industry partners can suggest projects related to cyber-physical systems, and they contribute financially to the Center, which helps fund research projects for graduate students.”

The participating graduate students have access to the Center’s multiple faculty members, industry mentors, and other graduate student researchers, offering opportunities to form valuable relationships with peers and mentors.

“I like to see relationships between faculty and students happening on a more personal level.” Sanfelice values his time with students. He talks about how important getting a chance to speak with some of the visiting speakers at UC Santa Barbara was to his career and does everything he can to create opportunities for synergies between students and professors. Now that the Center has been humming along for year, some big plans are being made.

“We’ve been doing a lot of outreach to the student population,” Sanfelice said, “we have been reaching out to first-year students and get them excited about cyber-physical systems Soon we are launching a social hour where students can present what they’re working on in five-minute elevator pitches to other students, faculty, and even industry partners who can provide feedback on it.”

Professor Sanfelice grew up in a small town south of Buenos Aires, Argentina that he says wasn’t all that different than Santa Cruz (minus the aforementioned rugged terrain he enjoys running up every morning). He became an engineer and wanted to learn more about control systems in particular, which took him to UC Santa Barbara for graduate school, then later to postdoctoral programs at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and École Nationale Supérieure des Mines de Paris. His first faculty position was in Tucson, Arizona and he moved to Santa Cruz in 2014. His lab since has been growing steadily. Currently he advises two postdocs, eleven Ph.D. students, three M.S. students, and two undergrad students.

In his spare time, Sanfelice is an avid runner. Each morning he jogs up Science Hill to work, and meticulously clocks his mileage. His goal is to hit a thousand miles this year. He likely won’t make it (a nasty fall during a summer hike in Utah kept him sidelined for a few months)—but, just like the Center, he has big plans for 2019.