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Pro­fes­sor Fu­lufh­elo Nel­wa­mondo of the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search is spear­head­ing cut­ting-edge fin­ger­print­ing tech­nol­ogy set to rev­o­lu­tionise crime foren­sics and bio­met­rics

Global finger­print-recog­ni­tion sys­tems are reach­ing new lev­els

of so­phis­ti­ca­tion, thanks to the work of Pro­fes­sor Fu­lufh­elo Nel­wa­mondo and his team at the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search.This and other work re­cently won him the

Or­der of Ma­pun­gubwe.

As a boy herd­ing cat­tle in ru­ral Lukau, Lim­popo, Fu­lufh­elo Nel­wa­mondo never thought he would one day be a pro­fes­sor. To­day, at only 34, he is a lau­re­ate of the Or­der of Ma­pun­gubwe for his ground­break­ing work in finger­print-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy.

The Or­der of Ma­pun­gubwe is South Africa's high­est honour. It is first among our six Na­tional Or­ders, awards

that a coun­try, through its Pres­i­dent, be­stows on its cit­i­zens and em­i­nent for­eign na­tion­als for ser­vice to that coun­try.

The Or­der of Ma­pun­gubwe cel­e­brates in­ter­na­tional achieve­ments that serve South Africa's in­ter­ests. Past lau­re­ates in­clude Pres­i­dent Nel­son Man­dela, physi­cist and found­ing pres­i­dent of the CSIR Basil Schon­land, and Quar­raisha Karim, for her re­search on tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and HIV/Aids.

Nel­wa­mondo is the Ex­ec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Coun­cil for Sci­en­tific and In­dus­trial Re­search (CSIR) Modelling and Dig­i­tal Science Unit.

“I never ex­pected to re­ceive a Na­tional Or­der,” he says. “Most re­cip­i­ents of Na­tional Or­ders re­ceive them af­ter death or when they are very old. It is hum­bling to re­ceive one at my age.”

Nel­wa­mondo's unit has four fo­cus ar­eas: data science, in­for­ma­tion se­cu­rity, modelling and sim­u­la­tion, and ro­bot­ics.

Read­ing be­neath the skin

Nel­wa­mondo's in­ter­na­tion­ally ac­claimed work de­vel­oped at the CSIR in­cludes the use of op­ti­cal co­her­ence to­mog­ra­phy (OCT) to read fin­ger­prints. This tech­nol­ogy can read lay­ers un­der the sur­face of the skin.

Nel­wa­mondo says that con­ven­tional finger­print-recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy is un­able to ac­cu­rately read the prints of man­ual labour­ers and peo­ple with torn

or dam­aged fin­ger­tips.

These con­ven­tional scan­ners only read the outer layer of the fin­ger print. If the skin on the fin­ger is too dry or wet, worn out, or a fake finger­print is be­ing used, the per­for­mance of au­to­matic finger­print iden­ti­fi­ca­tion sys­tems is af­fected.

To re­solve this chal­lenge, Nel­wa­mondo and his team de­cided to ex­am­ine what hap­pens be­low the sur­face of the skin.

He says that a dam­aged finger­print will even­tu­ally start to re­grow, be­neath the sur­face.

“I led the work where a swept source OCT can be used to scan the in­ter­nal skin fea­tures, up to the depth of the pap­il­lary layer. OCT is con­tact­less and scans in three di­men­sions.”

He says skin be­low the sur­face layer, also known as the pap­il­lary con­tour, rep­re­sents an in­ter­nal finger­print.

“This in­ter­nal part does not gen­er­ally suf­fer ex­ter­nal skin prob­lems. This work has al­ready at­tracted in­ter­est lo­cally and in­ter­na­tion­ally, by foren­sic in­ves­ti­ga­tors, for use in cases where peo­ple ma­nip­u­late their fin­ger­prints by burn­ing the outer layer of their skin af­ter com­mit­ting a crime. In such a case, an in­ter­nal finger­print can be used in­stead.”

Cut­ting-edge bio­met­rics

Nel­wa­mondo has also led work on the use of otoa­cous­tic emis­sions as a bio­met­ric mea­sure­ment tool.

“Otoa­cous­tic emis­sions (OAEs) are small sig­nals gen­er­ated by the in­ner ear which can be mea­sured in the outer ear by means of a mi­cro­phone.”

When sound stim­u­lates the cochlea – the au­di­tory por­tion of the in­ner ear – the outer hair cells vi­brate.The vi­bra­tion pro­duces a nearly in­audi­ble sound that echoes back into the mid­dle ear.

“These sig­nals are used as a di­ag­nos­tic tool for hear­ing, par­tic­u­larly in chil­dren,” Nel­wa­mondo says.

“The study of otoa­cous­tic emis­sions' ori­gin is im­per­a­tive in un­der­stand­ing the most in­te­gral part of the ear, the in­ner ear.Although OAEs are tra­di­tion­ally used for hear­ing di­ag­nos­tic pur­poses, my work in­ves­ti­gates their po­ten­tial as a bio­met­ric. This is likely to be the world's first ap­pli­ca­tion.”

Nel­wa­mondo says he is proud of his work, be­cause it con­trib­utes di­rectly to im­proved qual­ity of life.

Work in the na­tional in­ter­est

The CSIR, he says, pro­vides ex­cel­lent work­ing con­di­tions and an en­vi­ron­ment that nur­tures and de­vel­ops tal­ent. “More im­por­tantly, the work the CSIR does is aimed at mak­ing an im­pact in the na­tional in­ter­est.”

At the CSIR he has held many po­si­tions, in­clud­ing prin­ci­pal re­searcher, re­search group leader, and com­pe­tency area man­ager.

Nel­wa­mondo is also a vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor of elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing at the Univer­sity of Jo­han­nes­burg.

“I am an elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer by train­ing,” he says. “I hold a PhD in elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing from the Univer­sity of the Wit­wa­ter­srand, with spe­cial­i­sa­tion in the field of ap­ply­ing com­pu­ta­tional in­tel­li­gence in elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing ap­pli­ca­tions.”

He adds that be­ing in the en­gi­neer­ing field was sim­ply in­flu­enced by fund­ing.

“I wanted to be in an area where I could eas­ily get a bur­sary or a study loan. Luck­ily, I got a bur­sary from Eskom, and that com­pelled me to choose a ca­reer in elec­tri­cal en­gi­neer­ing. It turned out to be the best choice I could have made.”

“The Har­vard fel­low­ship is meant to be a mid-ca­reer op­por­tu­nity, but I was for­tu­nate enough to be awarded it at an early ca­reer stage, when I was 25

years old.”

Har­vard fel­low at 25

Af­ter his PhD, Nel­wa­mondo got the chance to do post­doc­toral re­search at Har­vard Univer­sity, through the Har­vard South Africa Fel­low­ship Pro­gramme.

“I re­main the youngest South African to be awarded such a fel­low­ship,” he says. “The Har­vard fel­low­ship is meant to be a mid-ca­reer op­por­tu­nity, but I was for­tu­nate enough to be awarded it at an early ca­reer stage, when I was 25 years old.”

Among his many ac­co­lades Nel­wa­mondo is also

a pro­fes­sional en­gi­neer, reg­is­tered with the En­gi­neer­ing Coun­cil of South Africa, a se­nior mem­ber of the In­sti­tute of Elec­tri­cal and Elec­tron­ics En­gi­neers, a mem­ber of the South African In­sti­tute of Elec­tri­cal En­gi­neers, the As­so­ci­a­tion for Com­put­ing Ma­chin­ery, as well as the In­ter­na­tional Neu­ral Net­work So­ci­ety.

“I cur­rently serve the na­tion in many roles, in­clud­ing the Home Af­fairs Min­is­te­rial Ad­vi­sory Com­mit­tee on Moderni­sa­tion. I am on the board of the City of Jo­han­nes­burg's Metropoli­tan Trad­ing Com­pany. I also served on the Re­search Ex­pert Fo­rum, ap­pointed by the Min­is­ter of Tourism.”

Nel­wa­mondo says get­ting to where he is now was not an easy jour­ney, but he had sup­port.

“I was lucky to have a men­tor, Pro­fes­sor Tshilidzi Mar­wala, who mo­ti­vated me to go all the way to PhD, and be­yond, and this helped me a great deal.”

Ad­dress­ing na­tional skill short­ages

Nel­wa­mondo says his area of fo­cus re­quires skilled per­son­nel. But the na­tional skill short­age makes it dif­fi­cult to re­cruit peo­ple with the re­quired skills from the des­ig­nated groups.

“This forced me to work hard on de­vel­op­ing young tal­ent my­self, through master's and doc­toral su­per­vi­sion,” he says.

“To­gether with the team, we worked hard to have stu­dentship pro­grammes funded by the Depart­ment of Science and Tech­nol­ogy, fo­cused in spe­cific ar­eas where South Africa does not pro­duce for­mal qual­i­fi­ca­tions.”

These ar­eas in­clude bio­met­rics and ro­bot­ics.

En­gi­neer­ing, in Nel­wa­mondo's view, is a fun and ex­cit­ing field.

“As en­gi­neers, we are cre­ative prob­lem-solvers and, as such, we shape the fu­ture. En­gi­neer­ing gives one of the best op­por­tu­ni­ties to in­no­vate, and if chan­nelled cor­rectly, we can di­rectly im­pact on the qual­ity of life through the devel­op­ment of tech­nolo­gies – tech­nolo­gies that can and should end in the mar­ket.”

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