Professor at UMass Amherst Wins Prestigious Award to Continue Research on Smart Bearings

AMHERST, Mass. - University of Massachusetts engineer Robert Gao has received $310,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue his research on "smart" bearings that could help prevent airplane, helicopter or even car accidents.

The four-year CAREER award is a prestigious grant aimed at supporting the work of young faculty members; this particular grant will help Gao to pursue his work in which tiny microsensors are embedded in bearings to sound an alert when the machinery is endangered by a potential failure, or begins to wear out.

"If a failed bearing goes undetected in a helicopter or the landing gear of an airplane, people can die," says Gao, an assistant professor of mechanical and industrial engineering at the University.

Bearings are doughnut-shaped mechanical components widely used to provide support for pipe-shaped machinery parts that rotate, such as the rotor on a helicopter, or the shaft of an engine, Gao explains. Bearings can be prematurely damaged in a variety of ways, including faulty installation, overheating from insufficient lubrication, surface erosion, or structural damage from overloading. A microsensor embedded in the bearing sends a signal to a remote computer if a problem arises, sounding an alarm. "This integrated diagnostic technique enables continuous monitoring of the machinery’s condition, and the prevention of catastrophic failures," says Gao.

Gao’s other research has included the invention of "smart" canes for people who are visually impaired. He had noticed that while conventional canes helped blind people to avoid obstacles on the ground, people could nonetheless be injured by obstacles above the ground - a low tree branch, for instance. The "smart" cane he developed has an embedded ultrasonic microsensor that warns its users with a voice signal when an overhanging object is blocking the way. Gao had to custom-design and miniaturize the sensors so that they could fit into canes only ½-inch thick. "Miniaturization is a technology that not only provides insight into manufacturing processes, but also can help create a better living environment," he said.

The CAREER award also has an education component. Gao is teaching students the multidisciplinary field of "mechatronics" - an integrated design approach involving mechanical engineering, electronics, and microcomputers. Mechatronics design has been used in fields as diverse as automobile safety systems and auto-focus cameras. "The industry is in increasing need of engineers who have a broader and multidisciplinary background, who think critically, and communicate effectively in a team environment," Gao says. These qualities make them more employable when they are in the job market, he adds.

Gao earned his Ph.D. at the Technical University of Berlin, in Germany, and joined the UMass faculty in 1995.