Smart Structures Excite Alum

Wouldn’t it be cool if an aerospace structure, such as an unmanned drone like the Predator, could continually monitor all its functions and report back any problems it was experiencing?

Michael Todd (B.S.E. ‘92, M.S. ‘93, Ph.D. ’96) sees a day when this will become a reality. On the faculty of the University of California at San Diego (U.C.S.D.), Todd is a pioneer in the new field of “smart structures” engineering research. In fact, he helped create the country's first graduate degree program in structural health monitoring, damage prognosis, and validated simulations at U.C.S.D.

While his research covers civil, mechanical and aerospace structural systems, his focus recently has centered on aerospace applications. In simple terms, he combines his skills in hardware design and software development to create a far more complex and sophisticated “check engine” light in cars.michael_todd_small.jpg

“The whole idea of smart structures is to replicate some of functionality human beings have in communicating how they feel,” said Todd, Associate Professor and Vice-Chair of Structural Engineering. “We’re trying to develop structures that help themselves by monitoring and communicating the state of their health. I’m working on the part of the puzzle that performs these self-diagnostic tests.”

As a part of his research, he uses fiber optic sensor arrays and RFID-enabled sensor networks for making the measurements necessary for self-diagnosis. By integrating these sensor technologies with targeted processing algorithms, Todd creates smart structures that continually provide data regarding health and performance in an online, efficient manner for optimal decision-making, reconfiguration, performance enhancement and life safety.

Todd believes that these are exciting times, both for the field of smart structure research and the growth of his relatively new San Diego campus. In many ways, he sees similarities between U.C.S.D. engineering now and Duke engineering in the late 1990s as up-and-coming institutions.

"Both San Diego now and Duke then are suddenly being recognized as a new high-growth institution," Todd explained. "Where I am now reminds me of the transition Duke made from a regional institution to one with national and international aspirations. It's exciting to be in at the beginning of such a dramatic rise in size and prestige."