Duquesne Biomedical Engineering Students Take a Fresh Look at Potholes—and Cancer

What do Pittsburgh potholes have in common with cancerous cells?

For one thing, their images. Both are irregularly shaped, eluding detection based upon geometric patterns.

For another thing, a group of students training as biomedical engineers at Duquesne University.

Undergraduate students tackled digital imaging and engineering issues as they designed and built a quadcopter drone that nabbed the attention of NASA and an MIT spin-off at last month's Maker Faire Pittsburgh. Constructed with 3-D printers, plus purchased parts like microcontrollers and a camera, the drone features unusual energy-saving construction that propels it forward as it captures GPS coordinates corresponding with camera images of potholes.

One of the students' challenges was to develop a way to distinguish a pothole from a manhole, a pothole from a speed bump, a pothole from new asphalt, explained Dr. John Viator, director of Duquesne's biomedical engineering program.

And what, exactly, does that have to do with malignant cells?

"You use the same skill set-shape analysis-to identify tumors in an MRI or to identify pathological cells in blood samples," Viator explained. "It's an active area in research.

The students-sophomores Marc Hazur of Verona, Colin Moore of Butler, Elizabeth Petrell of Johnstown and Cecilia Lee-Hauser of Elizabeth, with freshman Andrea Sajewski of Mercer, Pa.-came up with the idea of a drone pothole patrol after learning about drones being used elsewhere to inspect bridges. The students' drone, which is capable of autopiloting by a GPS or manual piloting by a human, flies at about 35 feet. It delivers information through software the team developed to share geospatial coordinates along with the camera image.

Image processing is at the intersection of engineering technology and the medical arena. The students demonstrate how cells in a blood sample look the same in a computer-generated image, whether they are cancer cells or typical cells. With their software, students can assign gradient colors based on nonvisible pigmentation differences in specialized areas of the cell and its edges. The program produces a rainbow-colored version of the cell images-showing which cells are cancerous.

"It's a microskill versus a macroskill," Moore said.

And a skill that, without being both engineers and scientists, they wouldn't have developed.

"The drone was an entryway to pursue and make a contribution to research and their careers," said Viator.

Duquesne University

Founded in 1878, Duquesne is consistently ranked among the nation's top Catholic universities for its award-winning faculty and tradition of academic excellence. Duquesne, a campus of nearly 9,500 graduate and undergraduate students, has been nationally recognized for its academic programs, community service and commitment to sustainability. Follow Duquesne University on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.