The Wire

  • New tunnel, premium RV section at Talladega Superspeedway on schedule despite weather

    Excerpt:

    Construction of a new oversized vehicle tunnel and premium RV infield parking section at Talladega Superspeedway is still on schedule to be completed in time for the April NASCAR race, despite large amounts of rainfall and unusual groundwater conditions underneath the track.

    Track Chairman Grant Lynch, during a news conference Wednesday at the track, said he’s amazed the general contractor, Taylor Corporation of Oxford, has been able to keep the project on schedule.

    “The amount of water they have pumped out of that and the extra engineering they did from the original design, basically to keep that tunnel from floating up out of the earth, was remarkable,” Lynch said.

  • Alabama workers built 1.6M engines in 2018 to add auto horsepower

    Excerpt:

    Alabama’s auto workers built nearly 1.6 million engines last year, as the state industry continues to carve out a place in global markets with innovative, high-performance parts, systems and finished vehicles.

    Last year also saw major new developments in engine manufacturing among the state’s key players, and more advanced infrastructure is on the way in the coming year.

    Hyundai expects to complete a key addition to its engine operations in Montgomery during the first half of 2019, while Honda continues to reap the benefits of a cutting-edge Alabama engine line installed several years ago.

  • Groundbreaking on Alabama’s newest aerospace plant made possible through key partnerships

    Excerpt:

    Political and business leaders gathered for a groundbreaking at Alabama’s newest aerospace plant gave credit to the formation of the many key partnerships that made it possible.

    Governor Kay Ivey and several other federal, state and local officials attended the event which celebrated the construction of rocket engine builder Blue Origin’s facility in Huntsville.

4 months ago

Preventing a big hack attack

(USA/Contributed)

If you’re reading this story using an electronic device, you might be hacked before you get to the next paragraph.

Welcome to the 21st century, where new technologies and new vulnerabilities seem to be going hand in hand. The good news is, there are people on your side working and learning to protect you and your personal information. One of those people is University of South Alabama student Trinity Stroud, a junior in USA’s School of Computing.

And she acknowledges your cyber insecurities.

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“It is my understanding that most systems and software start out with vulnerabilities,” Stroud said. “As black hat and white hat hackers alike attempt to exploit these vulnerabilities, the cybersecurity community’s knowledge of the causes for these vulnerabilities and the means to prevent or avoid them grows.”

For the uninitiated, a black hat hacker tries to exploit computer security for malicious reasons. A white hat hacker looks for computer security flaws that a black hat hacker could exploit.

“I think that as technology advances and new systems are designed and implemented, vulnerabilities are to be expected,” Stroud continued. “Though we may not be moving toward an environment more secure from hacking overall, I believe we are making progress toward ensuring security in areas where years ago such a level of security was not the norm.”

Stroud, who graduated from Mary G. Montgomery High School in Semmes, participated earlier this year in the nationwide Cyber FastTrack Competition and emerged as one of 100 finalists from an initial group of 13,289 college students. The month-long competition, which took place online, tested research techniques, security disciplines such as Linux, cryptography, programming, identifying security flaws, in-depth code cracking and how to dissect a cyber criminal’s digital trail. Of the more than 250 “challenges” presented to the students, Stroud completed 86 percent.

As a reward for her top 100 finish, Stroud received a Cyber Honors academic scholarship valued at $22,000 from the SANS Institute, which bills itself as “by far the largest source for information security training and security certification in the world.”

Dr. Todd McDonald, USA computer science professor, echoed that sentiment. “SANS certifications are very significant in both industry and government for security-related professionals,” McDonald said.

The SANS courses run 90 days at a time and all are offered online. Stroud will begin her first course, Applied Cybersecurity Security Essentials, in December. “I expect to begin a more intensive study into hands-on IT systems roles with respect to security tasks,” she said. “This course should expose me to defense, cryptography, network and endpoint security, and penetration testing, among other topics.”

She is scheduled to graduate in May of 2021. And after that? “I hope to later apply what expertise I have developed by that time to a career focused in computer science and perhaps cybersecurity in particular.”

Stroud was one of 17 South Alabama students who participated in the competition. USA’s Jarrod Carson was among 541 students to reach the semifinals. “Given the number of students who participated nationally and the prominence of USA and School of Computing students who participated among other colleges in Alabama, this is a very distinguished honor for Trinity, Jarrod and our school,” McDonald said.

McDonald is the faculty advisor for USA’s DayZero student organization, which promotes professional development in cybersecurity knowledge and awareness. Club members participate in capture the flag and red team/blue team competitions, similar to Cyber FastTrack, on a regular basis.

“These competitions lay the foundation for students to join the cybersecurity workforce in both government and industry after graduation,” McDonald said. “With only 1 in 4 cybersecurity jobs currently being filled nationwide, the club opens up incredible opportunities for USA students.”

DayZero students participate in three major national competitions yearly, among many others, including the Cyber Collegiate Defense Competition, or CCDC, the Cyber Penetration Testing Competition and the Department of Energy’s CyberForce challenge. In 2017, USA’s team made it to the national CCDC competition and placed fifth in the nation among some 300 university teams.

(Courtesy of University of South Alabama)

4 months ago

Assessing the health of Mobile Bay

(USA/Contributed)

Much like the proverbial canary in the coal mine – which warned miners of dangerous gases – the oyster, blue crab and speckled trout can warn us about the fragile health of Mobile Bay.

To that end, the University of South Alabama has received a five-year, $2.9 million grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to study how oyster, blue crab and speckled trout respond to changes in their environment.

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“The research will involve understanding and linking physical, biological, chemical and human drivers of populations of oyster, blue crab, and spotted trout, also known as speckled trout,” said Dr. John Lehrter, associate professor of marine sciences. “There will be lab and field work to measure trends and variability in drivers and populations. Based on lab and field results, numerical ecosystem models will be used to analyze how future projected trends, as well as management and restoration interventions, may affect the populations.”

Lehrter and his colleagues, including USA students, will also assemble and analyze historical data to see how the populations have responded to long-term trends and variability in temperature, river discharge and water quality in Mobile Bay, and they’ll identify thresholds at which rapid changes in those populations occur.

Ph.D. student Mai Fung, who came to South after getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from the University of California, is one of Lehrter’s researchers. “One of the major questions we have in this project is how environmental variability affects quantity and quality, as well as the habitats and resiliency of these populations,” Fung said. “I will primarily take water and sediment samples and use these samples to spatially and temporally characterize the differences in environmental characteristics for these populations.”

You may ask, why are the specific populations of oyster, blue crab and speckled trout significant? Lehrter, who is also a senior marine scientist at the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, said each represents a different segment of our bay waters.

“Oysters are planktonic during larval stages, and then settle and grow in a particular location, so they are not able to move if habitat or water quality declines,” Lehrter explained.

“Blue crab are also planktonic during larval stages before settling to benthic, or bottom habitats. But unlike the oysters, they’re mobile, so they are able to make use of bottom habitat throughout the bay. Generally, bottom waters are where we see the most serious low oxygen and pH problems, so it’s likely that they will be impacted by changes, but perhaps not to the same degree as the stationary oyster. Speckled trout use both bottom and surface layers and are pretty mobile. Thus, they may be least impacted by environmental change.”

Lehrter pointed out that all three also have high fishing pressure, so there are management actions from the fishery side that may also be used to improve these populations.

“In sum, we’re looking at how do we manage the ecosystem both from the bottom up – water quality and habitat quality – and top down – fisheries management,” he said.

South Alabama students such as Fung will play a major role in the research, which benefits both the project and their future careers. “We plan to train five to seven Ph.D. and master’s students during this project,” Lehrter said.

Fung’s dissertation work is focused on mercury, a contaminant of major concern to both humans and the ecosystem. “I am investigating sources of mercury to Mobile Bay, and how mercury is connected to other processes such as carbon cycling and sediment metabolism,” Fung explained. “My ultimate goal is to gain a better understanding of how this contaminant can be managed.”

So this research project has multiple benefits. While providing useful information about the health of Mobile Bay and key populations in the bay, Lehrter said it’s also beneficial to South students conducting the research.

“This training will provide them with the background to become leaders in the area of ecosystem management, which is the direction that water quality and fisheries management is headed.”

(Courtesy of University of South Alabama)

6 months ago

USA professor sets ambitious goal to improve wastewater infrastructure in rural Alabama

Dr. Kevin White, a professor and chair of civil, coastal and environmental engineering at South, and civil engineering graduate student Brandon Maliniemi in Mobile, Ala. (Mike Kittrell)

For years – 13, to be exact – Dr. Kevin White has been on a mission to improve wastewater management infrastructure in portions of rural Alabama. He’s discovered that, in some areas, more than half of the households have raw sewage in their yards, the result of either a failed septic system or having no system at all.

“The lack of proper wastewater management is both a health issue and an economic development issue,” White said. “Business and industry certainly will not locate to an area without functioning wastewater infrastructure.”

After years of research and testing, he’s ready to take the next step. Actually, several steps.

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With support from a three-year grant from the Environmental Protection Agency, White, professor and chair of civil, coastal and environmental engineering at the University of South Alabama, has an ambitious agenda to significantly improve wastewater – and thus, public health – conditions for rural communities who need help. Chief among his goals is developing a guide for citizens who want to fix the unsanitary conditions; a guide based on his research findings and experience.

“For these rural communities, many of them poor and without resources and technical knowledge, the questions they have are, ‘Where can we get funding? What technologies should we use? How do we manage it? What are the regulations?’” White explained. “These communities want to help themselves, but it’s a real challenge to know where to start first, what to do next, and so on. And while private engineering companies are available to assist, few specialize in all of the areas needed to provide cost-effective wastewater infrastructure for these rural areas.”

The $755,761 grant came about largely because of a summary paper White and co-author Dr. Mark Elliott, assistant professor in the University of Alabama department of civil, construction and environmental engineering, submitted last year to numerous government officials and agencies, including the EPA.

Beyond the guide, the grant will also support White’s efforts to test and demonstrate the effectiveness of innovative and sustainable wastewater treatment options in rural areas.

He’s focusing on five counties – Dallas, Hale, Lowndes, Perry and Wilcox – that suffer from high levels of poverty and impermeable soils unsuitable for traditional septic systems. These conditions have resulted in failed septic systems and widespread raw sewage discharge to the ground surface.

“We are committed to implementing cost-effective, onsite wastewater treatment solutions in these areas,” White said. “We’ll focus on individual households for now; clusters of 15-t0-50 homes will come later if we’re successful.”

White also wants to explore alternative regulatory strategies that could provide more wastewater management options for households and communities with the most challenging soil and poverty conditions. “We want to provide some experimental treatment systems and test their viability,” White elaborated. “This may lead to changes where traditional methods don’t work.”

Civil engineering graduate student Brandon Maliniemi, who also earned his bachelor’s at USA, said he chose to attend grad school at South because of the opportunity to work on the EPA project with White. He’s assisting White in identifying funding options, management options and appropriate wastewater treatment technologies. “As the project progresses, we will be installing and testing the selected technologies to verify their effectiveness,” Maliniemi said, who added that he has a personal interest in the project’s success.

“Personally, the project is gratifying. I am thankful to have the opportunity to provide value to underserved communities in Alabama. A major reason why I chose civil engineering is the public service aspect, and this project allows me to help the community.” After graduating, Maliniemi said he intends to continue work in the water/wastewater engineering sector.

The final step in the process may provide the greatest help to the most people. It’ll be the creation of the how-to guide for local governments, utilities and residents in the affected counties.

“Some of these counties are so small, rural and isolated that they just don’t have the resources or information to make useful changes,” White said. “Once they have a blueprint they can follow, that’s an important step toward clean water, better health and opportunities for economic development.”

10 months ago

University of South Alabama supporting NASA’s deep space ambitions

(USA/Contributed)

“That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.”

Fifty years ago, astronaut Neil Armstrong’s remarks galvanized the entire world as he became the first person to walk on the moon. Fifty years later, the moon is again beckoning, but this time not as a final destination but as a launch point for something bigger.

“The United States will soon be able to launch people into space again,” said Dr. Samuel Russ, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of South Alabama. “It is in the nature of people to want to go farther and to explore, and I am excited that we, both in the U.S. and around the world, are continuing to do this.”

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To that end, NASA and the National Space Grant Foundation selected ten university teams from across the country to design systems, concepts and technologies to potentially support NASA’s deep space exploration capabilities, including an orbital lunar outpost serving as a “gateway” to deep space. And one of those ten universities is the University of South Alabama.

“South has a College of Engineering that offers degree programs that are competitive with any similar degree programs in the country,” said Dr. Grant Glover, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at USA. “In particular, it is important to note that this is an undergraduate project, and in my opinion, I think it is rare to find such a unique opportunity at any engineering school.”

Glover, Russ and their undergraduate students are working on two separate projects for NASA.  Russ’s project focuses on automation and power management of an unmanned biological laboratory for the gateway, with a special interest in energy-efficient computing and software design. The lab would function with minimal support from a crew or mission control on Earth.

“Our students are building a robotic station that will grow plants and provide lighting, nutrients and water,” Russ explained. “The robot will plant, monitor and harvest the plants and send back status reports, and the automated system will control the lighting, water and nutrients. They are building a complete system to do this from scratch, including constructing the robot, the plant-growing pods and the control system.

“In other words,” Russ continued, “we want to develop a station that can run unmanned for years and grow crops in space.”

In Glover’s project, students are evaluating two custom-synthesized ionic liquid solutions for capturing carbon dioxide in a closed-air revitalization system. Since most of the air for astronauts is recycled within their spacecraft or habitat, a key part of this process is the removal of exhaled carbon dioxide.

“In the fall semester, the students worked to understand the problem, defined metrics of success, evaluated the options to test the ionic liquid, designed an apparatus to conduct the tests, and developed a test plan,” Glover said. “In the spring semester, the students have constructed the ionic liquid and are beginning to test the apparatus.”

It’s pretty remarkable to think that USA undergraduate students are playing an important role in NASA’s mission. “Working on a NASA project that can potentially contribute to further human space exploration is extremely gratifying,” said Benjamin Smith, an electrical engineering major from Saraland who’ll graduate this spring.

“Besides being able to say they developed equipment for a NASA space station, they are learning to do actual engineering,” Russ said. “This project is every bit as complex as a project they will encounter after they graduate, and this gives them a chance to see how engineering is done.” The project also exposes the students to some of the latest technology, including robotic agriculture and 3D printing.

They have until the end of the spring semester to work on the projects, and then comes their research presentation to NASA. Glover said the space agency utilizes a systems engineering approach to build and develop projects.

“In that regard this project is the same as any other NASA project with periodic program reviews, technical reviews and discussions,” Glover said. “NASA subject matter experts evaluate the progress of the project and review the results as prepared in a final report. All the presentations to NASA are completed by students.” Russ said they videoconference regularly with NASA, but the final presentation planned for May will hopefully take place in person at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

South and the other nine universities are part of the eXploration Systems and Habitation (or, X-Hab for short) 2019 Academic Innovation Challenge. The X-Hab initiative supports NASA’s research efforts to study sustained and affordable human and robotic space exploration while helping to develop the highly skilled scientific, engineering and technical workforce of the future.

“If our work with NASA helps motivate students to be interested in space exploration, even if they later work outside the field of engineering, then I think the work is rewarding,” Glover said.

“Universities should be places where innovation occurs,” added Russ, “and I am proud that South Alabama is helping to innovate human exploration.”

(Courtesy University of South Alabama)