- 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
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
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
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
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
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."