MIT Professor’s Internet of Things Sensors Make Roads Safer

MIT Professor’s Internet of Things Sensors Make Roads Safer

In 2005, before smartphones became generally available, Professor Hari Balakrishnan of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was so fed up with commuting delays in Boston that he built a mobile system to monitor road conditions.

Balakrishnan day





Member degree


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Indian Institute of Technology, Madras, and University of California, Berkeley

He and his research team at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory developed CarTel, which is short for Car telematics. Using signal processing and machine learning, their vehicle sensor was able to infer the presence of potholes and other obstructions from changes in traffic flow, which were measured using GPS and accelerometers. Their research has won numerous awards, and the system has been covered by Boston Globe.

In 2010, Balakrishnan and two co-founders commercialized CarTel by launching Cambridge Mobile Telematics. Today, the Massachusetts company is the largest telecommunications services provider in the world. Insurers, auto manufacturers, ride-sharing services, and public agencies use CMT data to evaluate driver behavior, encourage safer driving, dispatch roadside assistance, and more.

Balakrishnan, an IEEE Fellow, is this year’s winner of the Marconi Prize for his “fundamental discoveries in remote sensing, networking, and distributed systems.” The award presented by the Marconi Society is considered the highest honor in the field of communications.

“On paper, this award honors me, but in reality it is a recognition of my more than 30 Ph.D.s,” he says. “The students, postdocs, collaborators, and team at CMT who have worked incredibly hard in creative ways to take research ideas and make them really impact World.” “It honors the field of mobile sensing and networking systems.”

Hari Balakrishnan speaks to the Marconi Society about his career highlights and his thoughts on receiving the award.Marconi Society

Using data to make driving safer

Balakrishnan came up with the idea for CarTel while talking with fellow MIT professor Samuel Madden, director of the university’s data systems and artificial intelligence lab and an expert in data management and sensor computing.

“I told him we should start a research project that would use the sensors we knew a lot about, attach them to cars, measure what was happening, and then try to understand the data,” Balakrishnan recalls. “This was before iPhones, Androids, and Google Maps.”

They later founded CMT, where Madden served as chief scientist.

“CarTel was one of the first projects in mobile sensing,” says Balakrishnan. “We’ve shown that it can work at scale.

“I was trying to figure out how to commercialize it using the idea of ​​mobile sensing for social good.”

Help came in 2009 from William V. Powers, an experienced sales executive who became Balakrishnan’s business partner. He is also the co-founder and CEO of CMT.

Balakrishnan says that although the startup had the technology, it did not have a business model. After reading articles about how insurance companies use expensive devices to measure people’s driving to set premium rates and detect fraudulent claims, they found their model.

“Our mission is to make the world’s roads and drivers safer.”

“It occurred to me that we had shown, in principle, how to do this using consumer phones and cheap IoT devices that could be put in a car without having to be professionally installed,” he says.

This early system evolved into DriveWell, an AI-based platform that collects data from displays including accelerometers, gyroscopes, position sensors in smartphones, dash cameras, and IoT devices like the DriveWell Tag.

Balakrishnan says the platform combines information with contextual data to build a picture of how drivers operate their vehicles, measuring factors like hard braking, excessive speed, and phone distraction.

“Our mission is to make the world’s roads and drivers safer,” he says.

DriveWell has served more than 30 million vehicles to date. Insurers including Admiral, Discovery, HUK-Coburg, MS&AD and USAA use CMT programs to offer discounts to better drivers. CMT recently partnered with Hyundai to provide its customers with real-time roadside assistance and repair services. There are also DriveWell, FuelStar and Openroad mobile apps for motorists who want feedback on their driving.

The first indoor GPS system

Balakrishnan has created other systems that use sensors for practical purposes. Between 1999 and 2004, he oversaw the development of the Cricket Indoor Positioning System. It combined radiofrequency and ultrasound techniques. Beacons mounted on walls and ceilings broadcast information on a radio frequency channel, which sends out a chirp signal. The beacon then emits a corresponding ultrasonic pulse. Receivers connected to mobile devices listen for radio frequency and pulsed ultrasound signals. The cricket uses different speeds of sound and radio frequency to calculate the distance between the receiver and the beacon.

The system provided space identifiers, location coordinates, and direction. The cricket provided a range distance and positioning accuracy of between 3 and 5 centimetres. It has been used in areas where GPS does not work well, such as hospitals, office buildings and research centres.

“GPS only works outdoors,” says Balakrishnan. “Even today, you can’t get GPS signals indoors. When your apps show you location indoors, it means they’re using other technologies.

The research team has open-sourced the hardware and software, and more than one million units have been built and deployed.

“This approach is not applicable to every device in the world, because adding ultrasound devices to every device is not practical,” says Balakrishnan. However, with modern smartphones capable of sending and receiving ultrasound signals on their speakers and microphones, the approach developed in cricket may become useful in the future. In fact, some recent proposals for contact tracing for COVID-19 have used this approach.

This year’s IEEE Medal of Honor winner, Vint Cerf, congratulates Marconi Award winner Hari Balakrishnan at the Marconi Awards Gala, held on October 27 in Washington, D.C.Marconi Society

Love of research and academia

Balakrishnan earned his bachelor’s degree in computer science in 1993 from the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. He says he chose this field because he thought it would allow him to make practical use of mathematics.

“I knew nothing about computer science,” he says. “I had never programmed a computer before. But I knew I was interested in things of a mathematical nature, and I enjoyed mathematics and physics immensely. After about a year and a half, I felt like I understood what this field was all about. By the time I finished university, I absolutely loved it.”

While pursuing his Ph.D. He says that after earning his bachelor’s degree in computer science from UC Berkeley, he became passionate about conducting research. He says he enjoyed it so much that he wanted to make a career out of it.

He is also known for his early research on how to improve wireless networks – which can be found in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library and which won the 1998 Doctoral Dissertation Award from the Association for Computing Machinery.

In the final year of his doctorate, in 1998, he decided to pursue an academic career. He interviewed for a faculty position at MIT and knew immediately that this was where he wanted to work, he says. The university hired him that year, and he has been working there ever since.

“I felt like this was a place where people were on the same wavelength as me,” he says. “It’s always good to go somewhere where people appreciate what you do.”

Despite his entrepreneurial success, Balakrishnan continues to teach.

“I really enjoy working with students and just love research,” he says. “I enjoy teaching students, and honestly, they teach me as much as I teach them.”

IEEE Society

Balakrishnan says he initially joined IEEE as a student for the discounted price of membership and conference registration. But after he started working, he realized it was important to be part of “a professional community of like-minded people who were interested in the fields I was interested in,” he says. “IEEE has benefited my career because I have participated in conferences and events where I have made professional connections that will last a lifetime.”

He is also a member of the US National Academy of Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

The IEEE honored him in 2021 with the Koji Kobayashi Computer and Communications Award for his “extensive contributions to computer networks and mobile and wireless systems.”

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