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Engineer seniors to build lunabot, 3-D printer

Autonomous robots and 3-D printers are everyday items for these senior engineering students.

The engineering program is one of the largest and oldest traditional undergraduate programs that John Brown University offers, providing students opportunities to work with projects from NASA, the Institute of Affordable Transportation, National Institute for the Severely Handicapped, and more.

Senior design provides students the opportunity for interdisciplinary application of both mechanical and electrical engineering. This project requires the senior engineers to research and apply the culmination of everything they have learned throughout their time in the program.

Senior engineering student Andrew McIntyre is assistant engineer of the project that he is working on with fellow team members Ariel Forret, Ryan DaCosta, Loana Vega, Roy Dyck, and Joe Gaylord. This team of students will be competing in NASA’s Lunabotics Mining Competition this year. The University has earned quite a reputable name in this competition, as University students have competed all five years that NASA has conducted the contest.

This competition tests the students’ mechanical and electrical engineering capabilities as it requires the students to build a robot that is capable of mining lunar dirt or “regolith” on the moon or Mars. This robot must also fit within a certain list of requirements such as size constraints, weight constraints, and technical communication limits. Once built by this team of students, the robot will then demonstrate its performance capability in a ten minute competition in which the robot must navigate through a field of obstacles, excavate dirt, and carry the dirt back through the field of obstacles to a depositing bin.

“The big push over the past couple of years has been to have your robots operate autonomously, which means that they’ll work by themselves,” said McIntyre. “So you’ll push a button, and your robot will figure out where it is on its own, and drive itself, dodging obstacles along the way. Then it’ll dig up the dirt on its own, and then drive back and dump [the dirt] on its own.”

This year’s team of engineers is more confident than ever, competing with the largest team of JBU students ever to participate in NASA’s Lunabotics Mining Competition, with four electrical engineers and two mechanical engineers working on the mining robot. This combination of both mechanical and electrical engineers has made the team optimistic that the robot will be able to operate autonomously as intended.

Senior electrical engineers Lucas Weaver and Seth White have been diligently working on their senior projects this year, as well. Weaver and White are working on a project sponsored by Texas Instruments. This company is seeking to bring more functionality to a small component of their processors called a micro-controller, a device found in most electronic devices. Texas Instruments has designed a micro-controller that provides the company a distinct advantage over their competitors. Unfortunately, since this micro-controller is not user-friendly, Weaver and White are seeking to make it easier for customers to use.

In order to demonstrate how user-friendly Weaver and White’s redesigned micro-controller will be, they will be building a 3-D printer, which repeatedly prints layers of plastic to form a three-dimensional object.

Weaver said, “We aren’t actually doing the hardware part of the 3-D printer, but we’re working on the software part that tells the hardware what to do and how to move and lay the layers of plastic down.”

Both teams of student engineers are working diligently on their projects. However, much of the assembling and constructing is yet to come.

“A lot of the first semester is getting ideas, researching, brainstorming, and testing out possible solutions,” Weaver said. “It’s not any of the actual dirty work in the big design process; it’s the first couple of stages.”

The senior engineering students do not actually begin applying their research to the construction process until they get closer to the second semester of the school year. However, the end of the spring semester may prove to be a time-crunch for many of the senior engineers as they approach their senior design deadlines.

“April has the reputation for being the month that none of the seniors leave the building. They’re just in there all the time!” McIntyre said.

Weaver agreed and added, “Pray for us!”