Auburn engineering faculty are heavily involved in research, which often relies on the development of hardware, software and installations that make them usable in real-world situations. Of course, being an engineer does not necessarily mean being a good technician, or having an up-to-date knowledge of materials needed to create a cost-effective and reliable set-up for experimentation or validation. That’s where Zeb Whitehead comes in — as a staff member of the College of Engineering’s Network Services group, he is called on to complete an incredibly diverse set of work projects, often under deadline pressure.
JK: We see you all over the engineering precinct, even on rooftops . . . so what exactly do you do for the college?
ZW: If you saw me on a rooftop, it was probably because I was
checking, adjusting or doing something similar to a wireless
access point, or I was checking on one our web cams. In fact, I
had responsibility for the construction web cam that tracked the
progress of the first phase of the Shelby Center, and we have
another web cam tracking the second phase of construction.
JK: And if you were checking on a wireless access point?
ZW: Not as likely . . . but engineering was the first unit on campus to install outdoor WiFi, so I was involved in installing access points. To get this done, we selected access points on some of the rooftops in the engineering quad that gave us good, seamless coverage. Since then, there has been an overall effort to make wireless coverage a priority around campus, from building to building. Now you can use a laptop on campus just about anywhere you are. A lot of faculty and students have also begun to use cell phones for access to data, e-mail, social networks, digital calendars and notebooks, so it’s really a mix now.
JK: You were also involved in placing a wireless mesh network at the test track in Opelika for research conducted by the National Center for Asphalt Technology.
ZW: Yes, there were a couple of projects out there. One was to surround the 1.7-mile track with data acquisition boxes that relayed data from track sensors that could detect various inputs, such as pavement deflection, to a centralized location in the track offices. At the same time, we put in an outdoor research area for wireless networks for use by engineering faculty and students for various experiments. We have since moved from an open-source, research-based platform to a more commercially purposed 802.11n network that allows the NCAT researchers to have an exceptionally reliable system that more closely meets their needs. The other project we had at the track was to provide real-time data connectivity for the scoring officials at the first Baja SAE race that was staged in the wooded area adjacent to the track. We also set up remote cameras for that event . . . but I think that the real take-home for that project was morphing it into a system that the NCAT researchers could use on their projects.
JK: What’s the hardest thing you have done?
ZW: In a way, that’s difficult to tell. We always to try to give the professors here as much of a turnkey process as possible, and their needs are so varied. It almost feels like you’re starting your job from a blank page every day. Recently, we created a security system for a scanning microscope that involved creating a log file and calendar to make sure that this delicate, complicated and expensive piece of equipment was well monitored, and that we knew who used it and when. The installation of our moon rock was also a challenge. I had to place a lot of sensors into what is a relatively small area, and provide the kind of redundancy needed to protect this one-of-a-kind display..
JK: How do you protect the lunar sample that was presented to the university by Auburn alum and astronaut T.K. Mattingly?
ZW: Well, I can’t reveal all. Some of it is fairly obvious — we have video cameras that were placed in certain locations, following a security audit by police professionals. At the same time we have a number of sensors and alarm systems that are an integral part of the display area. I can tell you that one of the sensors I used in the installation is more commonly used to detect seismic vibrations in building installations in earthquake prone areas on the West Coast. That’s a part of my job that is seemingly always there — cruising the parts catalogs for something that will get the job done. It may not be something that part was designed for — but ultimately, it can get the job done.
JK: The landscape of the digital world seems to change so rapidly . . . what do you see down the road, say in five years?
ZW: The first thing I would have to say is that it is really so unpredictable. If you look back five years, you’re looking at bigger, slower computers than the ones we are running today, particularly in the area of research. I think if you look five years ahead to what’s going to be on your personal desktop, of course, it’s going to be smaller and faster. There will also be a much bigger wireless presence. Everything on your desktop will be able to talk to everything else wirelessly. And in addition to more and more wireless data transfer, you’re going to see more and more wireless power in everyday computer devices.
JK: Is your entire world defined by electronics and data management, or is there another side to you?
ZW: That would be no — I have one computer in the entire house, and I generally use it to Google stuff up. When I get home, it’s almost like I flip back to the 1900s. I play with metalwork, and with the horses I have in pasture. I also ‘play at’ being a farrier, that is to say, I trim and shape their hooves . . . all of our horses have natural feet, which means that that they’re not shoed. When I got home yesterday, I unloaded round bales onto pallets, fed all nine horses, and then . . . broke my tractor. So I called it a day.