Aaron Costin using NSF grant to track buildings

Friday, December 14, 2012

Doctoral student Aaron M. Costin has a good handle on the whole “work/life balance” dilemma: the construction engineering researcher paints and runs an art studio on the side.

Aaron Costin“I pretty much work in the lab from 8 to 6, and then, to blow off stress, I paint,” says Costin, whose colorful prints and paintings may be viewed (and purchased) through AMC Art, his online gallery.

"Painting’s been something I’ve done since high school, and it helps me to relax.”

This unusual relaxation strategy has worked well for the 24-year-old Costin.

Since transferring to Georgia Tech in the fall of 2009 to pursue a joint BS/MS degree in civil engineering, he has presented papers before academic audiences in Cairo and Munich and published his research in the Journal of Automation in Construction.

As an undergraduate, he received the President’s Research Award, and, in 2012, he was the recipient of a three-year, National Science Foundation GRFP fellowship.

“That means I will be an NSF Fellow for life,” said the soft-spoken scientist, who expects to earn his Ph.D in 2015. “That’s pretty exciting.”

Costin is proud of, but not distracted by this latest honor. The NSF funding, he says, will allow him to fully immerse himself in research that has always riveted him: the integration of passive radio frequency identification (RFID) tracking technology and building information modeling (BIM) to develop an algorithm to navigate large buildings.

“The thrust behind my research is to develop an algorithm integrating current techniques available through the Electrical and Computer Engineering community that will allow people – whether it’s a worker or a firefighter or anybody - to navigate a building using the shortest, quickest route,” he said.

“When you’re talking about construction, that’s going to save time, and when you save time, you save money. Most importantly, it has the potential to save lives.”

As a construction engineer, Costin is ultimately interested in improving the productivity of workers who build and operate large structures. Facility maintenance, in particular, can present a huge drain on worker time and efficiency.

“Locating a specific utility within a large facility, with its labyrinth of corridors and rooms, is really tough,” he says. “But if all of the utilities can be integrated into a 3-D model, with known coordinates, we can create real-time road maps that give workers the best route to the desired location.”

Costin says currently available BIM technology will allow for sufficient modeling. The indoor localization function can be accomplished using passive RFID, a small, embedded radio chip that delivers an identifying signal that’s optimal for buildings.

“They’re discrete, they’re cheap – 10 cents a tag – and they’re durable,” he said. “They don’t depend on the building’s wireless networks or its power source, so they can be used even when there is no power, like in a fire or a power outage. And they have a power signal that is in the perfect range – 10 meters – so you will only pick up tags in close range, and not be bombarded with a bunch.”

Costin gained a good working knowledge of RFIDs early on in his career at Georgia Tech, the result of research he conducted with his mentor, Dr. Jochen Teizer, at Atlanta’s Westin Hotel. He will continue working with Teizer as he moves forward in the next phase of his research which will integrate the RFID and BIM technologies.

Costin said he has already developed a prototype that simultaneously connects the RFID readers with a database program and a 3-D BIM program.

“This will allow me to visualize, real-time, what resources are in a facility and where they are within the BIM model,” he says. In the coming semester, Costin expects to develop a primitive algorithm which he will refine over the course of his doctoral studies.

While he is ultimately interested in seeing this process used in the construction trade, Costin does not see himself installing or maintaining such systems. Rather, he is interested in developing the specifications that will allow users to identify the right tracking system for their particular needs.

“This about research, not application,” he said. “But my research will develop guidelines and methodologies that will be very useful for industry. And it will have applications that OSHA (the Occupational Safety and Health Administration) is very interested in, because it will allow you to control access to potentially dangerous environments.”