“I truly believe that the greatest innovation occurs when wildly disparate insights collide. My vision is to deeply focus on emerging Information and Communications Technology, and help to apply it widely to tough problems that face us as society,” says Prof Gert-Jan van Rooyen, the holder of the new Research Chair in the Internet of Things (IoT). This Chair, established in the Faculty of Engineering at Stellenbosch University, was created to encourage collaboration between research groups at the University that use connected technologies to solve prominent real-world problems.
“What I especially like about the Chair is that it encourages interdisciplinary work,” says Prof van Rooyen. “The ‘Internet of Things’ is any way digital technology and connectivity observes, connects and affects the world around us, and it applies to many areas – from wearable medical technology to flying vehicles that support agriculture and new ways to create 3D objects. The Chair also puts emphasis on industry collaboration, and research that can have a real social or commercial impact.
“Like any research appointment, my most important responsibility is to help unlock new knowledge that can have academic, social or commercial impact. To do this, we need our best students to enrol in postgraduate research. We need collaboration across academic disciplines and industry. Therefore I am already in conversation with several industry partners.
“I will also do undergraduate teaching in Data Science, Information and Communications Technology, and related subjects. The Chair will also provide supervision for final-year projects of Electrical and Electronic, and Industrial Engineering students as well as co-supervision for students from other departments.”
When asked about the Chair’s research projects, and interdisciplinary research in particular, he explains: “The intent is to be involved with research activities in cross-sections between disciplines, rather than forming a new, distinct research group. Engineering and Mathematical Sciences are great at providing new technologies that could solve problems across a wide range of domains – but we are not always aware of the problems that exist. For example, a machine learning expert may not be aware that a new image classification technique could be the missing puzzle piece to detect certain types of crop disease – if we can just combine it with a self-driving robot. This mix of problems and interdisciplinary technologies lies at the heart of the Internet of Things.
“Although our research projects have not been finalised yet, there are some very exciting projects under development. In Agricultural Technology, we are looking at ways in which to use improved robotic and sensing technologies to support food security. We are working on blockchain-based IoT concepts to improve governance in community hubs like schools. Connected biomedical devices could vastly improve healthcare, especially in rural areas. We are looking for students – and final-year students are very welcome to contact me if they are interested in how emerging ‘connected’ technologies can impact the world around us. There are bursary opportunities available for postgraduate studies.”
Prof van Rooyen’s appointment also forms part of Stellenbosch University’s new School of Data Science and Computational Thinking. “I am appointed 50/50 between Electrical and Electronic Engineering and Industrial Engineering – this is where I do my day-to-day work. However, the School ties together activities between many academic departments. As Research Chair in IoT, my teaching and research responsibilities fall under the activities that the School is promoting and developing.
“I am very excited about my new position. I have always been fascinated by the connections between academic disciplines, and with the connections between academia, industry, and the social spheres. The Chair presents a tremendous opportunity to help advance the impact of emerging technologies on real-world problems.”
Prof Gert-Jan van Rooyen received his PhD in Electronic Engineering at Stellenbosch in 2005, where he continued to join the Faculty of Engineering’s academic staff. In 2008, he co-founded the MIH Media Lab, a cross-disciplinary postgraduate research environment with a strong focus on using emerging technology to solve problems that have commercial application. In 2014 he co-founded Custos Media Technologies to commercialise one of the Media Lab’s inventions, and left academia to pursue the business opportunity full-time. He was reappointed at Stellenbosch University in July 2020 in the Internet of Things Research Chair.
Photograph: Prof Gert-Jan van Rooyen, holder of the Research Chair in The Internet of Things.