Academy fosters electric dream

The Baltimore Sun

Naval Academy seniors James Masterson and Jason Miyoshi don't look like the sort who would spend their days trying to hotwire a car, what with their crewcuts and pressed tan uniforms.

But there they were Wednesday afternoon, leaning over the opened dash of Chrysler's Global Electric Motorcar, working on a way to get it started without bothering with a key.

The two-seat green car looks even tinier than it usually would, parallel parked in a hallway next to a display of a torpedo. But it is playing a big role as a mobile project platform for the academy's electrical and computer engineering department.

Masterson and Miyoshi are working on their senior project, a facial recognition system that powers up the car only after a Web camera scans drivers' faces to make sure they are authorized to take it out for a spin.

Miyoshi said they got the idea during an earlier class in biometrics - the use of physical characteristics for computer identification - and were excited to apply it to a car.

"It's just our culminating project, using all our ... experience that we've garnered," Masterson said.

The engineering program has had many project vehicles over the years, including solar-powered boats and small spacecraft. But this is the first year for the GEM car, said Cmdr. Charles B. Cameron, the professor supervising the senior projects.

Capt. Robert Voigt, an electrical engineering instructor at the academy, purchased the car from Clean Cities, a Baltimore dealer of electric vehicles.

The car's mobility and size make it a convenient platform, and its completely electrical workings provide students with a blank slate.

"It was actually a little bit simpler than I had originally anticipated," Masterson said.

Other students are working on a way to start the car through a cell phone.

When it isn't being sliced open by midshipmen, the car has occasionally served as handy transportation for faculty members, who have gotten it up to its governed top speed of 25 mph.

"Oh, we certainly [drive] it around; we've got 78 miles on it," said Jerry Ballman, a technician in the electrical engineering lab.

The GEM car is legal on roads with a speed limit of 35 mph or less.

Students will also test more military-oriented technologies.

A foam contraption sitting on the laboratory table will become a mockup of an improvised explosive device.

Students might eventually use the car, which sports a small pickup bed, as a moving platform to explore ways of detecting such bombs, which have caused many Iraq casualties.

The potential applications of the midshipmen's work seem obvious, Cameron said, but they serve a solely educational purpose.

"It's not that the projects are there to make the car better. The car is there so that the projects can be better," he said.

Masterson said he hopes to work in biometrics after deployment with the Navy ends. Miyoshi will be training to become a pilot.

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