ASEE Prism Magazine  - November 2002
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- By Erin Drenning    

The Cold War has long been over, but University of Illinois—Urbana-Champaign engineering students are still making good use of the weapons from that era.

Illinois introduced a two-semester senior design course last fall to teach students how to convert a Russian Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) into a miniature satellite capable of flying in low Earth orbit (600 kilometers). The tiny satellite, known as a CubeSat because of its dimensions, measures 4 cubic inches with a mass not to exceed 1 kilogram.

The first satellite project was expected to commence this month with the launch of the Illinois Observing Nanosatellite or ION from a Russian rocket under the watchful eyes of 30 Fighting Illini, including 11 electrical and computer engineering majors. But unfortunately the opportunity to launch evaporated due to international security restrictions. "It currently looks like we may be looking at a launch in 2004, if things work out," says Bill Hartmann, an aeronautical and astronautical engineering grad student and the project manager. "But no guarantees. We've changed strategies though," he continues, "and are currently not concerning ourselves with specific launch dates. Instead, we're trying to complete the build of the CubeSat and have something ready to go, off-the-shelf, so to speak, for any launch opportunity that might arise."

Regardless of the setback, the students appreciate all that they have learned while constructing the ION. "Designing the CubeSat has been a wonderful and unique learning experience," says Daniel Chen, a general engineering grad student who has worked on the project since last year, when he was a senior ECE major. "It provides a challenging goal and an excellent way to enhance teamwork and management skills. It is a truly multidisciplinay senior design project."

Illionois is one of several universities worldwide that recycles Cold War armaments by converting them into launch vehicles. But unlike other CubeSat designs, the Illinois project is the first in which students have equipped the satellite with thrusters that allow complete control over the device. The thrusters can change the satellite's orbit, execute formation flying, and move it up or down. If the thrusters prove successful, the satellite can run tests that seem impossible for ordinary satellites.

And just as they were careful to recycle Cold War weapons, the students won't allow their satellite to drift into orbit as space junk. At the end of its trip, ION's thrusters will be used
to change its course directly to Earth's atmosphere, where it will burn and disintegrate.


Students at any university know how hard it is to catch a campus bus at night or on the weekends; sometimes it seems like it would be faster to walk home than wait for the next shuttle. But at Georgia Tech, four engineering grad students devised a tracking system that would let riders know exactly where their bus is and estimate how long it would take to make it to their stop.

As a final project for their introduction to mechatronics class last winter, Chris Green, Carl Hanna, Ancil Marshall, and Kwame Ofori came up with a prototype for a system they call WISE, short for "Where is the Stinger Exactly?"—the stinger being the name of the Yellow Jackets' transit system. They installed small PICs, or microprocessors, into the buses, which transmitted their whereabouts to a main station. The signal at the main station was translated onto a digital display unit at passenger terminals to give students up-to-the-minute information about the buses.

"We wanted to come up with something that could be useful for a lot of people," says Hanna. "All of us were frustrated by the way the bus system was running. Most of the time, there was no way of knowing when the bus would show up, and it was particularly annoying when you arrived late to class because you had to walk after waiting for the bus," he continues. "A system that was able to tell when the bus would arrive seemed to be the solution to this problem."

While this type of tracking system isn't exactly new—cities like San Francisco and Washington, D.C., have already experimented with the technology—this is the first instance in which it was applied to a campus transit service.

And although WISE was only up and running during the course of the project, the students have high hopes that it might be implemented at other campuses throughout the nation. Moreover, they say the future of WISE is bright: With more time and money, the trio would refine the system so information on bus locations could be accessed on the Internet, and even on PDAs.


One February afternoon during his senior year of high school, Matt Jessel's New Hampshire home was destroyed by an arsonist. By the time anyone noticed the flames a mile and a half through the trees and across the lake from the main road, all that was left was foundation and ash.

He couldn't prevent his home from burning to the ground, but Jessel has made a difference when tragedy strikes others: He has logged over 1,000 hours a year since August 2000 as a volunteer fire fighter. Jessel, a senior civil engineering major at Cornell University, is one of about a dozen engineering students from all disciplines who is lending a hand at local fire departments in Ithaca and Cayuga Heights.

It's not too surprising that students who have an interest in engineering would also be fascinated with firefighting. "It's a mentality that is necessary for both. We're very methodical creatures," says Jessel. A firefighter needs to understand everything from fluid mechanics to structural engineering—how a building is constructed and what its stress fatigue and load limits are. And, in a town just a few hours from Ground Zero, prospective civil engineers may be putting extra effort into grasping the effects of fire on any structure they might build in the future.

At any rate, volunteering as a firefighter is a learning experience. Before they could gear up, these students were required to go through 15 hours of basic training, compounded by many more hours—including weekend sessions—to become state certified in order to enter a burning building. But in the end, it's worth it, says Jessel. "The most rewarding part about being in that uniform is the way people look at you," he says. "You're able to help them in their time of need, and that reaction of gratitude that you can see on their faces is priceless."


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