Top view of different kinds of vegetables along with kidney beans and eggs.

Designed for her final Systems Engineering project, Outman’s approach uses motion-detection cameras to scan barcodes, identify rate of consumption, and upload environmental storage conditions to users’ smartphones.

Q1: How did this problem come to your attention? 

I follow several large families and homesteaders on social media. Many of them have long-term storage systems to support their large families and to be prepared for emergencies. A trend common throughout is that they all manually track their storage and must constantly check what food they currently have, resulting in lost time and increased food waste when foods expire. I also have personal experience in lacking awareness of the food I’ve purchased and having to throw out food because I forgot what I had.

My goal was to architect a system that could be installed in an average American pantry and provide feedback to users to inform their food consumption and planning.

Q2: How did you use a systems engineering approach in creating your system?

I primarily followed an Object-Oriented Systems Engineering Method (OOSEM) approach, a process for how to architect a system in a model-based format. First, I collected research, spoke with subject-matter experts, and conducted potential user interviews to establish an understanding of the problem. Then, I began looking at the operational environment the system would be working in, including elements such as who would be using the system, the food itself, and the internet, and figuring out what interactions would occur between the system and those entities. From this, I wrote a preliminary set of system requirements.

The next major step was to identify the functions of the system. From the functions, a conceptual design was developed. After a trade study was done to select the most satisfactory camera for this application based on previously defined requirements, I created the conceptual design   to define the internal elements of the system and the interfaces between those elements (wires, Wi-Fi, touchscreens).

All data was modeled in the system’s architecture model. The model is a database of interconnected information that can be queried to show different views of the system. The benefit of using a model-based approach is its ability to follow how all the parts interact together.

Q3: What is your solution? How does it do the job better than systems already in use?

The solution is a food-storage management system that uses auto-tracking cameras installed in a pantry space that can be as small as a cupboard or as large as a sizeable pantry area. It captures images when motion, such as someone adding or taking an item, is detected in the storage area. The objects added or removed are identified and compared against an internal catalog of known items. Food items are identified by barcodes, but my system also has the ability to identify and track food that has been prepared at home, such as canned items. The system is connected to an application that’s installed on the user’s smart device and not only allows the user to see their current pantry inventory, but will also notify the user when items are soon to expire, recommend recipes, and track the rate of consumption of individual food items. In addition, the system tracks humidity, light, and temperature to enhance the lifespan of the food items.

Q4: Why is this work important? Do you see your solution working in real life?

With the increased occurrence of natural disasters, this system becomes increasingly important. People are purchasing emergency goods in bulk at progressively higher rates than before. When people lose track of when those goods expire, these items are then discarded, ultimately increasing our avoidable food waste. The camera technology, similar to applications such as Ring doorbells and smart refrigerators, will automatically track storage inventory and alert consumers of expiration dates and make them more aware of their purchases, which will aid in their food budgeting, as well. In the long run, this system would help consumers save money, time, and resources.

Q5: Will you continue to work on this project? 

I don’t plan to further develop the system. I may decide to prototype a system such as this for my own pantry at some point, though.

Q6: How have your studies in the Systems Engineering program played a role in the project development? 

The information and skills I obtained from the Systems Engineering program are foundational to how I developed this project. During the project cycle, I learned to understand the functional process of systems development and the principles of systems project management. As a systems engineer at Boeing, I supplemented my practical experience performing model-based engineering (MSBE) and system architecting with the Johns Hopkins Systems Engineering core curriculum to enhance my overall knowledge and skill level in this field.