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Kumar's anti-theft sensor steals the show University News
By Sara Hoover
Kumar�s AutoWitness device
Kumar’s AutoWitness device,
about the size of a penny, will aid police in tracking down stolen property by use of sensors.

Chances are if you’ve lived in Memphis long enough, you might have had your car or house broken into and items stolen. University campuses could also be potential targets for thieves to get unattended laptops or backpacks. Dr. Santosh Kumar, assistant professor of computer science in the College of Arts & Sciences, is working to increase the odds of stolen items being recovered with AutoWitness, a wireless sensor.

When I moved here, I heard from several people who had their house burglarized. We realized, ‘Is there something we can do about reducing the large number of burglary incidents in Memphis?’We realized maybe we could use wireless sensors for that purpose,” said Kumar.

The size of a penny, AutoWitness can fit inside or attach to any object. The sensor automatically detects when an item is being stolen and sends a message wirelessly to police dispatchers in real time, without the need for the owner to detect and report it.

Not only will AutoWitness detect thefts, but it has a tracking component. Anchor nodes, which will eventually be placed at intersections, send a message to the police when the sensor passes by. Essentially, police can track the item and thief as they go through intersections and get immediate updates about the location.

The goal is actually to lead to the arrest of the suspect. (The chip) has an accelerometer, a sensor which detects movement,” said Kumar. “It will detect whether there is significant movement and that no authorized person is present. If you are not carrying one of those authorized tools or cell phone, the system will detect ‘I am being taken away from where I am supposed to be’ and notify the police dispatcher via wireless channels to say a burglary is in progress at this location. ”

AutoWitness is selfdeployable and will come preprogrammed with cell phone software updates to create the username and password that will act as the master key. Once placed, the sensor will be activated.

If users forget their cell phone and move the item, the sensor has a second way to recognize owners by looking at the pattern of movement.

As long as you are complying with regular movement, you will be fine. False alarms are extremely expensive and we would reduce that,” said Kumar. The thief will not hear any alarms or be notified they are being tracked.

Current burglar alarms and video surveillance are more of a deterrence device. Our goal is not so much to protect the asset, but eventually lead to the arrest of the suspect,” said Kumar.

When patrol officers chasing the suspect get close enough, the signal will come directly from the sensor rather than from the nodes at intersections.

Dr. Santosh Kumar
Dr. Santosh Kumar
Kumar came to the U of M from Ohio State University, where his research was wireless sensor networks. AutoWitness is a collaboration between Kumar and Ohio State University computer science and engineering assistant professor Prasun Sinha and graduate students from both schools.

After two years of work, the team plans to have a real, campus-wide demonstration in several months. They expect AutoWitness to be deployable within a year and cover the entire U of M campus beginning in 2010.

The chip is relatively small, but Kumar and his team are looking to reduce its size even further. The sensor can be put into valuable objects like televisions, laptops or home theatres. It will not interfere with electronic devices because it doesn’t send out any communication unless it is being moved in an unauthorized manner.

That also makes AutoWitness very eco-friendly.

It uses the least amount of energy spent to get it to go. It’s sitting and waiting to detect – extremely energy efficient. The best that anyone in the world can do. ”

The battery should last at least a year and when it runs out, Kumar plans on customers buying new chips rather than replace the battery to keep the process simple and straightforward for owners. The AutoWitness chip is expected to retail around $10 to $20.

What makes it different from LoJack, a similar concept for recovering stolen vehicles, is it has its own power source.

LoJack needs a huge power source. We can’t use it to protect un-powered assets. There is no such requirement for (AutoWitness). You may put it in any asset you like.”

The Memphis Police Department and the U of M Police Services are very interested in AutoWitness. U of M deputy director of Police Services, Derek Meyers, actually suggested the name AutoWitness.

His reaction was, ‘If you can get me this, you will make my job a whole lot easier,’” said Kumar. “They have much more serious crimes to attend to and are short on staff. If there is a burglary, but law enforcement could not reach the house in time, that’s basically it. Once the burglar has fled the scene, it is a very expensive investigation. It is like searching for a needle in a haystack. Our goal is to make law enforcement much more efficient in bringing down the crime rate in the city. ”

Major Jim Harvey, technology manager for the Memphis Police Department, believes AutoWitness can be a police aid with different uses.

Most burglars steal within a mile or two of their home. If you have property that has been stolen, and we got tracking devices in patrol cars, then all we have to do is ride around through the neighborhood getting indications of stolen property. It would really drive up your chances of getting your property back and us making an arrest for the burglary,” said Harvey.

The technology needed to access the information already exists in certain squad cars.

Some vehicles either have or will have laptops with wireless connectivity. We’re already pulling data from the state everyday, and we could just as easily populate those car databases with information on stolen property,” said Harvey.

Kumar guarantees AutoWitness will detect the location of the suspect.

We make a mathematical guarantee that every time the suspect moves between blocks, they are sure to be detected. If we have not detected them for one hour, then they are guaranteed to be within certain blocks because if they move out of that block, they are guaranteed to be detected. ”

The AutoWitness system is not patented.

For computer-related products, a patent is not the best protection you could get. Then it becomes public information, so we believe the best way to make it happen is to capture the market,” said Kumar.

 Kumar credits his team with bringing AutoWitness to life.

 “We professors play the role of visionaries. We envision a system and act as the gatekeeper: here are the problems that need to be addressed. Solving the problems and getting the system working are mostly done by the students. Most of the credit goes to the students. ”

Bhagavathy Krishna, a master’s student in computer science, is responsible for the theft detection aspect.

 “It has to classify whether the movement is a theft or just vibrations. Outside there are vibrations caused by wind, you have to differentiate all this from real theft movement. I am building a classifier for it to find out whether it is a theft or only a movement. ”

Krishna finds the project beneficial to students and the community at large.

 “This is a very challenging project and one of the best a student can get in his master’s program. It will save a lot of people from their trauma when their particular object is stolen. You will be on par with the leading technology researchers, and this is definitely going to help my career as well as make a difference for society. ”

To watch a demonstration of AutoWitness, visit

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Last Updated: 12/21/12