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.”
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
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.”