Writer: Emily C. Kelley
Not all recent college graduates can say that they have designed real world products for delivery to government organizations like NASA, but that is exactly what four New Mexico State University electrical engineering students did during their final year of undergraduate study.
Dylan Anderson, CJ Barberan, Chris Scherer and Chenyu Liang worked as a team to develop and deliver a project they call the White Sands Test Facility Sniffer to NASA as their senior capstone project, a graduation requirement for the NMSU College of Engineering.
Asher Lieberman, a project manager for NASA’s Propulsion Test Office at White Sands Test Facility, and an NMSU College of Engineering alumnus, presented the concept to the team of students during capstone orientations held at the beginning of the fall semester.
“The senior capstone project is absolutely critical to an undergraduate engineering degree. Our degree programs are jam-packed full of theories and techniques,” Anderson said. “While it is important to learn the technical background of engineering, it is equally important to solve a real problem and perform engineering in the real world. It is even better if the project actually engineers a final product or deliverable.”
Lieberman explained to the team that one potential hazard of working in a rocket engine test facility is that employees could be exposed to dangerous chemicals through leaks on piping systems, especially during the drastic daily temperature changes experienced in southern New Mexico. The NASA site has pressurized systems responsible for carrying hazardous and reactive chemicals to test stands. NASA is developing a chemical sensor to detect potential leaks.
“The problem for us was to develop a platform that could deploy this sensor to various locations throughout the NASA site and prevent personnel from being exposed to leaks,” Anderson said.
The students started with a basic robot platform, the Super Droid Robot SD6 Chassis. They added navigations systems, sensors and processors to the robot.
Barberan developed an error-corrected differential GPS system and selected ultrasonic range sensors with the ability to detect range out to five meters for the sniffer, while Liang and Scherer developed the sensor packages for the weather station on the sniffer. The weather station provides temperature, wind speed, wind direction and humidity data in real-time. Anderson was the primary software developer for the team and developed the operational interface of the system.
“With these new capabilities, we will have opportunities to make observations and take measurements without sending people into the area,” Lieberman said. “The rover the team developed for us allows us to sense things that may happen when people aren’t even at the site. It really gives us an opportunity to take some existing technologies and innovations and bring them together for us to do something new.”
The sniffer is intuitively controlled using an X-Box controller, an innovation Lieberman hadn’t expected.
The White Sands Test Facility Sniffer was developed for NASA by a team of NMSU electrical engineering students. The team included Dylan Anderson, CJ Barberan, Chris Scherer and Chenyu Liang. (Courtesy image)
“Students bring new, fresh ideas to problem statements,” Lieberman said. “The controller is easy to use and more intuitive than what we probably would have developed – and, it’s cheaper.”
“There was code available for the controller, plus, the ergonomics of the controller made it a good choice,” Barberan said.
The sniffer has contact charging capability, similar to that of the Roomba-style vacuum cleaner. The robot base is rugged and is capable of operating in many different environments, both inside and outside.
Some of the many challenges the team encountered included learning LabVIEW, a programming language; working with the federal budget and acquisition process and finding products compatible with the programming language.
“We had wanted the robot in December, but it wasn’t delivered until April,” Barberan said. “The whole Super Droid Robot cost around $10,000, and trying to convince them (the government) that we needed the robot right away was hard.”
The team had completed most of the design work before the Super Droid was ever delivered.
They assembled and tested the sniffer on campus during April, and had a couple of problems to work through.
“The CompactRIO processor just stopped working,” Barberan said. “Working through that problem was like a rite of passage for us.”
After completing work on the sniffer, the team presented their work to NASA, other undergraduate engineering students and a professor.
Lieberman was impressed with the product, but more so by the students, who were given a $35,000 budget and were able to deliver the product on time and on budget.
“This was an incredible bunch of students,” he said. “They are really talented.”