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Keeping time: Ohio University engineering undergrad’s research improves timing accuracy

Megan Reed | Mar 13, 2017
Kevin Croissant seated next to a computer

Keeping time: Ohio University engineering undergrad’s research improves timing accuracy

Megan Reed | Mar 13, 2017

For most of his life, computer engineering junior Kevin Croissant has loved taking things apart. Now, through his undergraduate research at the Russ College, he’s doing just that – while creating a positive impact on almost every sector of society.

“I always wanted to know how things worked and if I could make them work better. I took apart everything in our house when I was growing up – computers, phones, appliances,” the Cleveland native said. “There were definitely times when I took apart things I shouldn’t have, like TVs, which are actually dangerous to take apart because they have really high voltage.”

However, his parents always supported his curiosity, which continued into high school when he taught himself about software radios and experimented with GQRX software. When he came to OHIO, he chose computer engineering to learn more about what he calls the “the ultimate tool.”

“Screwdrivers – you can screw something in. Hammers – you hit something or pull something out. Computers – you can do pretty much anything,” he said. “You can do a lot just with a normal programmer, but with computer engineering, you can go much deeper and get a lot more done.”

As a freshman, Croissant went to Russ Professor Frank van Graas with questions about coursework, and mentioned that he’d been tracking airplanes with a radio he built. After van Graas shared that he was working with a group of students to research similar software radios, Croissant jumped at the chance to be part of the project.

Van Graas said students’ side projects prepare them for research – but also give them a natural way to connect with faculty.

“It’s a good idea to always have something you’re working on,” van Graas said. “Then you have something to ask questions about and keep interactions going.”

Much of Croissant’s work focuses on the use of software radios to monitor time signals.

“A normal AM/FM radio in your car will just do the simple function of letting you listen to the sound,” Croissant said. “Software-defined radios let you take the raw spectrum and from there you can do anything you want with the signal.”

Croissant uses these software radios to study WWVB, a time signal run by the National Institute of Standards and Technology used to synchronize the time on devices such as wall clocks, watches and scientific instruments.

“What we’re doing is making those clocks more accurate,” Croissant said. “Those clocks are accurate within maybe 10 milliseconds of the actual time. We’re going to hopefully get below 10 microseconds.”

Van Graas said the goal of the project is to create an alternative to the Global Positioning System (GPS), which is used for timing but can create serious repercussions if it stops working.

“Timing is one of the hidden pieces of infrastructure today. People don’t realize how much we depend on accurate time. If GPS stops working, most of the things we know stop working – banking transfers, ATM transactions, cell phones,” he said. “This is generally the case with engineering – we solve problems people don’t know are problems.”

Croissant has also been testing very low frequency antennas at the Ohio University Airport in Albany. Improving these antennas will help ensure accuracy when monitoring WWVB signals. Croissant will be presenting his research next month at a meeting of the Consortium of Ohio Universities on Navigation and Timing (COUNT).

Yet another project Croissant is working on is the NASA-funded design of a CubeSat, a small satellite that can be used to improve accuracy of timing. He said all this research has aided in his coursework and helped prepare him for his future career.

“A lot of times I’ll learn something through my research, then a semester later, I’ll learn about it in class,” he said. “It’s really helpful to connect the practical to the theoretical.”

Van Graas said all undergraduates should go to their instructors’ office hours – like Croissant did with van Graas his freshman year – and ask them about their research.

“It’s never too early to start,” van Graas said. “Generally our projects are big enough where people can participate at the undergraduate level and be exposed to the whole process.”