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November 15, 2023 | Katelyn Keenehan

Dr. Mina Sartipi wins ‘Thomas B. Ballard Advanced Energy Leadership Award’

Dr. Mina Sartipi's research at UTC is highly focused on smart city applications, especially as the world starts moving toward autonomous vehicles on the roadways.

You are running late for work, and the traffic light turns from yellow to red. You hit the brake. Sigh. Another minute ticks by on the clock. The light is still red, and you’re the lone car on the road.

You think – would anyone notice if I ran the light? After all, you’re already behind schedule. You look up to meet the gaze of an intersection red light camera. That settles the matter.

We’ve all been there, haven’t we? To quote the late Steve Jobs, “The most precious resource we have is time.”

A dedicated team of researchers at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga (UTC) is unraveling the mysteries of how we utilize our time on the road. Leading this groundbreaking initiative is Dr. Mina Sartipi, the Founding Director of the Center for Urban Informatics and Progress (CUIP) at UTC.

She was also named the winner of the 2023 Thomas B. Ballard Advanced Energy Leadership Award through the Tennessee Advanced Energy Business Council (TAEBC) at the Opportunities in Energy event on November 15.

Sartipi believes that their research could revolutionize various aspects of driving, potentially changing how traffic lights operate to save drivers valuable time. It could also influence road planning to enhance pedestrian safety and even play a role in collision prevention.


Mina Sartipi

The team at UTC is coding and developing artificial intelligence software that records intersection data, pedestrian patterns, rush hour trends, and driver habits. The research started on a small corridor of UTC’s campus. Four years ago, it successfully expanded to a mile-and-a-quarter-long testbed in downtown Chattanooga. Now, they’re in the process of expanding the research to a bigger test field.

“Everything that we do is artificial intelligence (AI). We use AI to generate real-world data for us 24/7. It’s very high frequency, very accurate data for us to analyze,” Sartipi said.

With Chattanooga city permission, Sartipi’s students placed cameras in intersections. The “cameras only can detect an object’s distance relative to other objects.

“From the very beginning, as part of building this testbed, we promised the citizens of Chattanooga that no video would be stored for privacy reasons and that there would be no personally identifiable information stored,” she said.

The AI component is crucial, as it applies computer vision algorithms based on artificial intelligence to detect and record this data.

The Thomas B. Ballard Award

Thomas Ballard and Dr. Mina Sartipi

The annual award, named for Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer at PYA and Editor-in-Chief of, celebrates leadership, education, mentoring, and advocacy in Tennessee’s advanced energy economy. Ballard was TAEBC’s first president upon its launch in 2014 and served on the board of directors until 2019. In 2019, TAEBC bestowed the first-ever Thomas B. Ballard Advanced Energy Leadership Award to Ballard himself, during TAEBC’s annual meeting at Schneider Electric’s Nashville Hub.

This year, Sartipi earned recognition for her achievement, which is centered on employing data-driven methodologies to address practical issues in smart city applications, specifically in the realms of mobility, energy, and health. A noteworthy accomplishment of the study was the initiation of the MLK Smart Corridor testbed by CUIP, spanning 1.2 miles. This initiative aimed to expedite research in smart city technologies and connected and autonomous vehicles.

“Mina Sartipi embodies the principles of the Tom Ballard Advanced Energy Leadership Award—she is a connector and a champion for smart cities and was instrumental in bringing living laboratories to city streets in Chattanooga,” said TAEBC Executive Director Cortney Piper. “Dr. Sartipi is an asset to Tennessee as we seek to become a leader in industry-led transportation electrification and digitization R&D.”

Looking forward

The next step in their research involves incorporating thermal cameras into the study. These cameras will still uphold strict privacy standards, but they will help researchers differentiate between various objects, such as cars, pedestrians, bicycles, wheelchairs, or other transportation devices. The research is highly focused on smart city applications, especially as the world starts moving toward autonomous vehicles on the roadways. But, the question remains, why is this research critical now?

Sartipi emphasized that fully autonomous vehicles won’t dominate the roads anytime soon. However, colleges and universities across the United States, including the University of Tennessee, Knoxville (UTK), are actively testing autonomous vehicle technologies. When these technologies become more accessible to the public, Sartipi wants to be prepared with valuable data to make informed decisions.

Future Funding

UTC, courtesy Angela Foster

The city of Chattanooga is equally invested in the results of her research. There are plans to expand the project to cover more streets in downtown Chattanooga.

“The city has received the funds to make it happen. It’s probably going to be in a couple of years,” she said. “These things cannot happen if you don’t have the support from the city. I mean the city we work with them very, very closely.”

More recently, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) awarded $1.1 million for research to enhance the detection of “vulnerable road users” within the Smart City Corridor.

Additionally, UTC and research partners will invest $300,000 to enable additional technology along the M.L. King Boulevard site to detect “vulnerable road users”—essentially, anyone not traveling inside an enclosed vehicle. The grant will fund the thermal cameras.


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