By Adam Zewe
Fadel Adib never expected that science would get him into the White House, but in August 2015 the MIT graduate student found himself demonstrating his research to the president of the United States.
Adib, fellow grad student Zachary Kabelac, and their advisor, Dina Katabi, showcased a wireless device that uses Wi-Fi signals to track an individual’s movements.
As President Barack Obama looked on, Adib walked back and forth across the floor of the Oval Office, collapsed onto the carpet to demonstrate the device’s ability to monitor falls, and then sat still so Katabi could explain to the president how the device was measuring his breathing and heart rate.
“Zach started laughing because he could see that my heart rate was 110 as I was demoing the device to the president. I was stressed about it, but it was so exciting. I had poured a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into that project,” Adib recalls.
For Adib, the White House demo was an unexpected — and unforgettable — culmination of a research project he had launched four years earlier when he began his graduate training at MIT. Now, as a newly tenured associate professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the Media Lab, he keeps building off that work. Adib, the Doherty Chair of Ocean Utilization, seeks to develop wireless technology that can sense the physical world in ways that were not possible before.
In his Signal Kinetics group, Adib and his students apply knowledge and creativity to global problems like climate change and access to health care. They are using wireless devices for contactless physiological sensing, such as measuring someone’s stress level using Wi-Fi signals. The team is also developing battery-free underwater cameras that could explore uncharted regions of the oceans, tracking pollution and the effects of climate change. And they are combining computer vision and radio frequency identification (RFID) technology to build robots that find hidden items, to streamline factory and warehouse operations and, ultimately, alleviate supply chain bottlenecks.