THE NUL GATE THAT “KNOWS” EACH STUDENT BY THE NAME

The automated gate was going to cost the university a gigantic M3, 000,000 if outside companies were contracted ! But the National University of Lesotho (NUL) engineers delivered it for M 100,000! No kidding! If you are a student or staff at the NUL, the gate system uses barcodes and RFID on your identity cards to give you access to the premises.

It was developed through a painstaking process by Mr Seforo Mohlalisi and Mr Thabo Koetje whose student assistants were Sello Sejake and Tiiso Ramadumane. NUL's Dr Molefe Makhele also contributed immensely to the work. It works for NUL, it can work for your organisation too.

(Apply here for the Second Phase of the NUL Innovation Hub http://bit.ly/nul-innovation-hub-proposals, deadline is extended to month end) 

If you are an employee who comes and leaves work any time you want, the system keeps an eye on you. It maintains a log-sheet of your entry and leaving times. If you are a “student” who lives off-campus and never come to school, you might get your parents calling you, “Hi Tibos, we learn you are no longer setting foot at the school; any problem or something?”

Some time ago, the then NUL Management had big dreams. They wanted to control the entry of students and staff of NUL through an automated gating system. Despite good intentions, the furthest the project could go was to install some metal structures. The metal structures were there, it appeared, to time indefinite.

When the new Vice-Chancellor, Professor Nqosa Mahao, came in, he wanted to know if he could get the system going, only for the would-be the installing companies to request somewhere in the neighborhood of M3,000,000!

For the cash-strapped university, M3, 000, 000 for the gate would be a luxury.So the Professor said no and then he forgot about the project.

He was not aware that a plan was brewing in the Faculty of Science and Technology. “We quietly plotted with our students to develop a system that would completely automate the NUL gate,” revealed Mr Seforo Mohlalisi.

As usual, he and Mr Thabo Koetje took action.

They supervised their students to work on the project for quite sometime and when the prototype was ready, it was time to surprise Professor Mahao. It was a welcome surprise.

“We went to Professor Mahao’s office and demonstrated a prototype," Mr Koetje said.

The system used Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology to represent student cards. It would scan a student’s RFID and match it with student numbers in a computer to decide if the students could be given access or not. Access was symbolised by a green light and denial of access was symbolised by a red light.

That simple system was enough to convince the Vice Chancellor. But there was still a problem. The last time he checked, M 3,000,000 was on the cards. How much would these folks ask for? He could not believe what he was about to hear. They wanted a measly M100, 000! That is 3.33 % of what was previously requested.

“When we quoted that money, we had not yet made any tests with the real gate. So we were not even sure we would pull it off,” Mr Mohlalisi said. “It turns out the money was more than enough.”

Now, if you are a bit surprised at the present innovation fever crippling the university, look no further than this motto by Professor Mahao himself, “never restrict the flow of ideas,” he often says. And that is music to the ears of every academic.

So the project was funded.

And the scholars got down to work. It was not easy. They had to study the gate metal structure that was not built by them to the finest detail. In the end, they had a plan. And they implemented the plan.

Now the system works. It was part of the incredible projects being displayed during the launch of the NUL Innovation Hub. And this is how the system works.

A student sorta swipes her card by bringing it some distance from a scanner ( o se homa feela).

The scanner reads a barcode on the student card (first year students cards now come with RFID on top of barcodes. Barcodes wear off, so the system will shift to using RFID which won’t wear out).

The scanner then sends the barcode information to the circuit interface which, in turn, extracts a student number from the barcode information and sends it (wirelessly for now) to a server installed at the gate. The server searches for the student number and, if it finds it, sends the information back to the circuit interface which now gives two instructions.

The first instruction goes to the solenoid which kicks the metal bar that allows the gate to rotate, allowing the student to pass through. The second instruction goes to light emitting diodes (LEDs). A green light shows that the student has been given access. A red light means the opposite.

Once the student has passed in, the gate detects it and the limit switch is kicked. The kicking communicates back to the circuit interface which, in turn, communicates to the solenoid to close the gate.

The procedure then repeats itself once a new student or staff member comes in.