Two brilliant brothers have won a Eureka Prize for their work on a monitoring and tracking system that could save lives and many millions of dollars.
Winthrop Professor Ba-Ngu Vo and his younger brother assistant Professor Ba-Tuong Vo worked together on their revolutionary system in the School of Electrical Electronic and Computer Engineering.
Asst/Professor Ba-Tuong Vo only completed his PhD at UWA two years ago and was already working on statistical signal processing with his supervisor Winthrop Professor Tony Cantoni, who shares the Eureka prize with the talented brothers.
Together they developed a new family of algorithms for tracking multiple targets - a system which outperforms and is cheaper than previous methods. It is already in use on the US Space Fence. Ba-Tuong explained that this meant their system was being used in a network of radars to track everything in the Earth's orbit.
"There are more than 600,000 objects orbiting out there," he said.
"Most of them are pieces of satellites that have disintegrated. Every time they collide with something, they shatter into more pieces. A new $30 million satellite project could be lost in a few seconds if it is hit by space debris. Our system helps NASA and other organisations to track the space junk and avoid potential disaster."
At the other end of the spectrum, the brothers' work is also being used in life science.
"We are working with a group at Johns Hopkins University who are using our system to track live cells," Ba-Tuong said.
Their approach is the first to measure the margin of error in multiple target tracking systems, making it simpler and more accurate than previous methods.
"If you're estimating something, you need to know how good your estimate is," Ba-Ngu said. "We are the first to develop that concept for multiple targets."
"You know those dots that come up on sweeping screens showing planes, ships or rubbish in the sky, on sea and on land? the problem, for up to 40 years, since this technique was developed, has been to decide which are targets and which are not.
"I was studying the tracking methods when I discovered a new way of looking at it, thanks to a book I was reading, Mathematics of Data Fusion. I'm more of a mathematician than an engineer.
"A good friend of mine is the second author of this book. He worked for Lockheed Martin (a leader in the design and production of jet fighters) and he sent me a 60-page report and asked if I could help him solve a problem.
"I sent it to Ba-Tuong, who was just three months into his PhD and he said he thought he could solve it. So he came to Melbourne and we worked on it together for about 10 days."
"We wrote a paper on it and it was a hit," Ba-Tuong said. "We took esoteric mathematics and showed the practical uses of it. the results were trialled in 2007 by NATO defence forces in live exercises."
Professor Ba-Ngu Vo is 12 years older than his brother. After studying at UWA, he worked overseas before becoming an academic at the University of Melbourne.
While his older brother was working at the University of Melbourne, the precocious Ba-Tuong applied for - and won - an individual ARC discovery grant for $250,000 even before he completed his PhD.
The Eureka Prizes, awarded by the Australian Museum for outstanding science in various areas, are considered the ‘science Oscars'. The core of the Vo brothers' and Professor Cantoni's submission was four papers co-authored over the past few years.
Ba-Ngu said it was just a co-incidence that their father had been in the navy and now their work was being used by defence forces.
"We never set out to follow our father," he said. When he was 11 years old, Ba-Ngu, his parents and another brother (two years younger) arrived in Australia as refugees from Vietnam. Ba-Tuong was born just six weeks after they arrived. Our mother was a primary school teacher - perhaps that's why I didn't like maths at primary school!" Ba-Ngu said. "It wasn't until I was in year 11 at Mount Lawley Senior High School that something caught my eye and I started becoming really interested in it."
The brothers enjoy working together (even the occasional fights) and are already trying to improve the algorithms to make the estimates more accurate.
Ba-Ngu has tenure at UWA but Ba-Tuong is unsure of his future once his ARC grant runs out at the end of next year.
"I could get a job in any number of resource companies, but I want to stay in research. I want to be an academic but it seems there are very few opportunities for young scientists in Australian universities," he said.
Published in UWA News, 20 September 2010