Cox Collaboratory creates smart solutions to improve on-campus transportation


April 7, 2021

This academic year alone, Arizona State University's Student Accessibility and Inclusive Learning Services (SAILS) has served more than 7,000 on-campus and online students and faculty, with about 10 to 20 new registration forms coming in daily.

SAILS, formerly the Disability Resource Center, provides accommodations like testing assistance, note-taking services and alternative format services, receiving text materials in audio text, Braille, large print and more. DART Cart DART carts provide on-campus transportation for students, faculty and staff. Download Full Image

Another key service SAILS provides is on-campus transportation to students, faculty and staff through DART Transportation Services. However, the process for students to register for the DART program and track their rides was outdated.

To improve user experience for students and create efficiencies for their staff, they partnered with the Cox Connected Environments Collaboratory to explore new processes and technologies.

Today, SAILS and the Cox Collaboratory are working together to tackle two projects: a system to better track the transportation used in the DART programs and an interface and mobile app that improves the experience — for example, making it easier to request, track and cancel rides — for students, faculty and staff.

Here, Chad Price, ASU director of education development and disability resources, shares more about SAILS and the process of working with the Cox Collaboratory, as well as their hopes for the project and advice for others who are in need of tech solutions.

Chad Price

Question: Introduce us to SAILS and how you support the Sun Devil community.

Answer: Our big focus is ensuring students have access to their educational experience at ASU. We are a resource for students who have disabilities. After meeting with students to determine the impact of their disability, we are able to ascertain the kind of accommodations that will ensure that they have the right kinds of access to succeed.

One of those accommodations is through DART, which helps transport Sun Devils with a permanent or temporary physical disability that prevents them from getting around campus in a reasonable amount of time.

Q: What are the challenges that SAILS is exploring with the Cox Collaboratory?

A: Our challenge was identifying a product to help manage scheduling and tracking rides, for both staff and students, that was specific to a college environment. We envisioned something like Lyft or Uber geared towards a campus.

We wanted to find a way that we can help track our carts to know where they were at any given time, which would ultimately improve our scheduling. What was important to us was making sure that students were more informed about their upcoming rides.

Q: How has your process been working with Cox and what is the current status of the project?

A: In the beginning, they sat down with us and really heard what we were looking for and what we're trying to accomplish. 

After building out a course of action together, they started to develop prototypes and models for us to begin testing. One of the things that we were looking at was a GPS-like system that we started testing using our LoRA network — which is a wireless technology that offers long range, low-power and secure data transmission. We tested the system on an Android device, a tablet, a cell phone to understand how different devices would function in the environment. At the same time, they put together programs to help track data. 

We’ve continued to meet regularly for them to give us feedback and updates, and with ASU’s University Technology Office, who is also working on user interface aspects for us. The Cox Collaboratory team even talked to some of our riders to get input from them to see what their experience was and where we could improve. 

It’s been fun to see the design process of what the Cox team is trying to accomplish based on the input from us, the customer, and to look at all of the stakeholders that would be involved.

Q: What have been some of the challenges or successes throughout the project?

A: Working through the technical aspects of it from our side, like the LoRA system, has been most challenging. Some of our staff aren't as familiar with the technology that is being used, so it’s a learning curve. Technical challenges include making sure that sensors are placed properly on the carts to be able to track them and how it might be beneficial for us to understand that.

But, overall, I can't think of a lot of challenges that have come up because everybody's been so good at communicating and keeping us up to up to date on what's happening.

For successes, I am seeing some of the things that are being done to create this product — using these sensors within the larger system and developing the online interface — and they’re pretty amazing. The ultimate goal is to make things more accessible.

Q: How can this tech solution help others?

A: Even though we're a small-scale operation of DART services, what we're working on could have value in lots of different places from a city — maybe paratransit, for example — and other universities facing similar challenges. There's a lot of potential available going through the process, and it's just finding where those needs are and using this solution.

Q: What advice would you give to others who on campus may have a tech problem that could benefit from the Cox Collaboratory?

A: Ask questions and share your challenges. It was validating to have people hear what we're saying and realize there’s definitely an opportunity. We rely on the Collaboratory to work on a solution.

Everybody that we’ve had an opportunity to work with through the Collaboratory — that’s both Cox and UTO — they’ve been fantastic. Having our team be hands-on by asking questions and getting us involved, leading us through the process, that has made our experience very positive. We can't wait to get our hands on the product and run with it.

Do you have a big idea on how to solve a problem through smart tech? Share it here.

Stephanie King

Content Strategist, University Technology Office

ASU team celebrates 20 years of mapping Mars with NASA’s Odyssey orbiter


April 7, 2021

Observing its 20th anniversary, NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey orbiter, the longest-lived spacecraft at the red planet, has helped locate water ice, find landing sites and study the planet’s mysterious moons.

On board this spacecraft is the ASU-led Thermal Emission Imaging System, or THEMIS. The camera measures the surface temperature day and night, allowing scientists to determine what physical materials, such as rock, sand or dust, exist. Its data reveal the presence of these materials based on how they heat up or cool down over the course of a Martian day. The spacecraft also includes gamma ray spectrometer detectors, which measure the amount of different elements on the Martian surface. NASA's Mars Odyssey spacecraft passes above Mars' south pole in this artist's concept illustration. The spacecraft launched 20 years ago on April 7, 2001. Image credit: NASA/JPL Download Full Image

NASA’s 2001 Mars Odyssey spacecraft launched 20 years ago on April 7, making it the oldest spacecraft still working at the red planet. The orbiter, which takes its name from Arthur C. Clarke’s classic sci-fi novel “2001: A Space Odyssey” (he blessed its use before launch), was sent to map the composition of the Martian surface, providing a window to the past so scientists could piece together how the planet evolved. But it’s done far more than that, uncovering troves of water ice, serving as a crucial communications link for other spacecraft, and helping pave the way not just for safer landings but astronauts.

For the ASU THEMIS team, led by Regents Professor Philip Christensen of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, two decades of data have led to complete global maps of Mars. These maps have allowed scientists to chart valley networks and craters; map water ice; spot sandstone, iron-rich volcanic rocks, and clays; and ultimately lend deeper insight to Mars’ story.  

“In the past 40 years Mars has gone from a red dot in the sky to a world we have come to know almost as well as our own,” said Christensen. “Mars Odyssey and THEMIS have played a major role in that transformation and it has been a great privilege to have been part of the exploration of Mars.”

2001 group photo of THEMIS team including (from left) Principal Investigator Philip Christensen with Greg Mehall, William O’Donnell and Steve Silverman with the Mars Odyssey orbiter prior to launch from the Kennedy Space Center.

The orbiter has sent back more than 1 million images since it began circling Mars. Not only have those images and the maps it’s produced helped missions figure out what parts of Mars they want to study up close, it’s helped NASA decide where to land its Mars missions – including the Perseverance rover, which touched down on Feb. 18, 2021.

Odyssey has done such a thorough job of studying the Martian surface that scientists have started turning its THEMIS camera to capture unique views of Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos. In June 2020, the ASU team published three new views of Phobos, capturing the moon as it drifted in and out of Mars’ shadow. Studying each moon’s thermophysics helps scientists determine the properties of materials on their surfaces, just as they did for the Martian surface. Such information can help offer glimmers into their past: It’s unclear whether the moons are captured asteroids or chunks of Mars, blasted off the surface by an ancient impact.

Future missions, like the Japanese Space Agency’s Martian Moons eXploration (MMX), may seek to land on these moons. In the distant future, missions might even create bases for astronauts. And if they do, they’ll be relying on data from an orbiter that began its odyssey at the start of the millennium.

Top 5 scientific discoveries from THEMIS

With 20 years of data, there are mountains of research related to THEMIS, but Christensen does have his own top five list of discoveries listed here in rank order. To read about more discoveries visit the ASU THEMIS webpage

1. Mars has large expanses of exposed bedrock: THEMIS results show winds have scoured many areas of Martian bedrock clear of sand and dust.

2. Evolved lavas: At Syrtis Major, THEMIS found volcanos and flows of dacite, a chemically evolved lava that implies a complex volcanic history for Mars.

3. Gas jets spawn dark "spiders" and spots on Mars icecap: Scientists use THEMIS data to discover that sand-spewing gas jets are the cause of mysterious dark markings that appear every spring on the Martian south polar cap.

4. Melting snow carved gullies: Water from melting snow eroded many of the geologically recent gullies on Mars — and snowpacks still linger on many poleward-facing slopes in the middle latitudes.

5. Olivine-rich rocks point to cold, dry Martian past: In Syrtis Major, THEMIS mapped the largest known exposure of olivine-rich rocks on Mars. Because olivine decomposes easily when wet, its survival from ancient times suggests Mars has been cold and dry for much of its history.

An Odyssey for everyone

Beyond building and operating THEMIS, the ASU team has developed several tools for the scientific community and for science enthusiasts alike at their Mars Space Flight Facility.

One of the most widely used such tools is a geospatial information system (GIS) called the Java Mission-planning and Analysis for Remote Sensing, or JMARS for short. It has been publicly available since 2003 and was recently named by Oracle as one of the Top 25 Greatest Java Apps Ever Written. JMARS is used by thousands of people, providing mission planning and data-analysis tools to NASA scientists, instrument team members, students and the general public

Not one to rest on their laurels, the Mars Space Flight Facility teamed up last year with Assistant Professor Robert LiKamWa and graduate student Lauren Gold of the Meteor Studio in ASU’s School of Arts, Media and Engineering to launch a new smartphone app called JMARS AR Viewer. Downloadable for free from Apple and Android stores, the JMARS AR Viewer allows users to virtually project planetary terrains from Mars, Mercury, Earth and the moon onto their physical environment.

But the team’s contributions are not limited to the digital platform. ASU Mars scientist Jonathon Hill compiled 24,000 individual images taken by THEMIS to design a basketball court-size map of Mars. The map can be transported to schools and events so science enthusiasts of all ages can “walk” on Mars. The map has even traveled to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., where visitors could take a stroll on the red planet, go on a geographical scavenger hunt and talk to Mars scientists.

Visitors to the National Mall in Washington, D.C., walk on the world’s largest map of the surface of Mars, created by the ASU THEMIS team. The map is a combination of 24,000 individual images taken from the Mars Odyssey orbiter. The various colors of the map indicate the elevation of different geographical landmarks of the planet. Credit: Aaron Kotowski for ASU

“Mars is a very dynamic and changing place, so we hope that THEMIS and Odyssey will continue to observe the planet for many more years to come,” said Christensen. “Exploration always has surprises so even after 20 years we never really know what to expect in each image we take.”

THEMIS was built and is operated by ASU. Odyssey's Gamma Ray Spectrometer was provided by the University of Arizona, Tucson, Los Alamos National Laboratory and the Russian Space Research Institute. The prime contractor for the Odyssey project, Lockheed Martin Space in Denver, developed and built the orbiter. Mission operations are conducted jointly from Lockheed Martin and from JPL, a division of Caltech in Pasadena.

This story was written by Andrew Good of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Karin Valentine at ASU's School of Earth and Space Exploration.