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Pesyna Named 2015 Young Scholar

Ken Pesyna, Marconi Young Scholar

Ken Pesyna, University of Texas Graduate Student, to Receive the 2015 Marconi Society Young Scholar Award

• Mountain View, California •

Fine-tuning GPS to centimeter-accuracy for wide array of applications

Ken Pesyna, a doctoral candidate at The University of Texas Electrical Engineering School, has been selected to receive the 2015 Marconi Society Paul Baran Young Scholar Award. The 28-year-old researcher will receive the award at the Royal Society in London on October 20, 2015.

“Ken’s work on centimeter-accurate and power efficient GPS may have turned conventional wisdom about this field on its head,” says Bob Tkach, a Marconi Fellow and chairman of the Young Scholar selection committee. “His ability not only to develop a new theory but to prove it in practice was truly impressive. Ken is on track to make breakthrough contributions in our field.”

Pesyna’s work makes use of a special part of the GPS signal that, if used correctly, can provide centimeter or even sub-centimeter positioning accuracy. Such accuracy is required for augmented and virtual reality (i.e., overlaying animated objects into the real-world, or a purely virtual world such as what is done with the Oculus Rift). These are technologies that require that head movements be tracked minutely, allowing the screen to compensate for that movement in a way that is convincing to users.

Another application of centimeter-accurate GPS is autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. Such accuracy will be needed to keep the car positioned in the lane and to determine its proximity to other cars, even in bad weather, when the Radar and vision systems might suffer. Centimeter-accurate GPS will also enable cars to cross intersections safely without needing to stop.

Still another use is mapping. Surveyors today use this centimeter-accurate GPS technology to survey ground markers, but the current technology has so far involved expensive hardware.  Pesyna’s breakthrough has been to integrate the technology into an ordinary smartphone, eliminating that expense.

To accomplish this, Pesyna had to identify and overcome the obstacles in using current smartphone technology. Among other things, he showed that contrary to conventional wisdom, the biggest challenge to achieving centimeter-accurate GPS positions with a smartphone isn’t so much power consumption or the limitations of the GPS chip, but the relatively poor grade of antennas used in the devices. Pesyna’s research identified a number of ways to overcome this antenna problem, and to address another problem of centimeter-accurate GPS:

“Centimeter-accurate GPS comes with a ‘gotcha,’” says Pesyna. “The time it takes for the phone to find your initial position (Time To First Fix/TTFF) is significantly longer than for standard meter-accurate GPS—as much as five minutes.  No one wants to wait that long.”

Pesyna discovered that just by moving the phone slightly back and forth, he could reduce the time by half. And by combining measurements from the GPS receiver with others from the smartphone’s camera to provide the phone with visual reference points that it could use to approximate its motion, he could reduce TTFF to about a minute—a length of time some people might find acceptable.”

He also has found ways to make the centimeter-accurate GPS algorithm more energy efficient and less of a drain on the smartphone battery.

“Ken has laid the technical foundation for a revolution in our field of positioning, navigation, and timing, a revolution that will culminate in the mainstreaming of satellite-based centimeter-accurate positioning on mobile devices such as smartphones and virtual reality headsets,” says Todd Humphreys, Assistant Professor of Aerospace Engineering at The University of Texas..

“Low-cost centimeter-accurate positioning is viewed by many as the ‘next big thing’ in our field, making possible democratized survey-grade 3-D mapping, untethered virtual and augmented reality, and reliable, low-cost lane keeping for autonomous vehicles.”

In fact, Pesyna’s work already has attracted the attention of Samsung, a leading smartphone company that also has a big stake in virtual reality technology.

“I see very good potential of the centimeter-accurate GPS in many emerging applications and services, including virtual reality, self-driving cars, new user interfaces to interact with the computers and smart devices, and more,” says Dr. Charlie Zhang, VP of Research at Samsung Research America in Dallas. “Ken’s groundbreaking work will prove to be essential toward realizing these potentials, and its society benefit is clear and long lasting.”

“We see very good potential of the centimeter-accurate GPS in many emerging applications and services, including virtual reality, self-driving cars, new user interfaces to interact with the computers and smart devices, and more,” says Charlie Jianzhong Zhang, Ph.D., the Head of the Standards and Research Lab at Samsung Research America in Dallas. “Ken’s groundbreaking work will prove to be essential toward realizing these potentials and its society benefit is clear and long lasting.”

Pesyna grew up in the Indianapolis area, one of five children.  His father is a mechanical engineer who instilled in all of his children a love of hands-on activities. He spent many weekends with his dad tinkering with the family cars and helping with home improvement projects. When he was admitted to Purdue University it was natural for him to enroll in the engineering program.

“Universities like Purdue are pretty rare,” he says. “They have a first year engineering program that is independent of disciplines—so you get the chance to ‘learn how to learn’ working in groups while figuring out what you want to do.  That was when I discovered wanted to be an electrical engineer.”

During his last year at Purdue, he interned at a nonprofit research institution in Texas working on wireless, and he was hooked. After looking into graduate school, he applied to UT, attracted by the school’s renowned Wireless Networking and Communications Group.

After a year of exploring various research avenues, he began working with Professor Humphreys on estimation and navigation. Eventually, Professor Robert Heath, a leading wireless technology expert and Cullen Trust Endowed Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at The University of Texas at Austin, became his co-advisor. Heath says Pesyna is not only an extraordinary researcher, but has the drive to be a successful entrepreneur.

“This past year, Ken along with a few of his colleagues started a company to commercialize the technology he developed during his graduate studies. It’s developing low-cost centimeter-accurate GPS positioning technology that is targeted toward both business and consumer platforms—and they already have a couple of companies interested in the first product. That’s impressive.”

Young Scholar candidates are nominated by their academic advisors. Winners are selected by an international panel comprised of engineers from leading universities and companies, and receive a $4000 prize plus expenses to attend the annual awards event.  Two other Young Scholars were selected this year: Kartik Venkat from Stanford and Joseph Lukens, from Purdue University.

One of the Society’s first Young Scholars also was from UT; Felix Gutierrez, Jr., now a VP of Hardware Engineering at Parlevel Services, Inc. in San Antonio.

This year’s Young Scholars will receive their awards at the same event where Professor Peter Kirstein, considered the “father of the European Internet,” will be honored with the $100,000 Marconi Prize. The Marconi Society was established in 1974 by the daughter of Guglielmo Marconi, the Nobel Laureate who invented radio.

The organization promotes awareness of key technology and policy issues in telecommunications and the Internet, and recognizes significant individual achievements through the Marconi Prize.