Editor's Page


For Sea, Land, and Air:
Hands-on Experience Produces Some of the Nation's Hottest Projects

by Liz Crumbley

Students working on engineWhen Jerry Lucas meets at the beginning of each fall semester with the faculty advisers of projects in the Joseph F. Ware Jr. Advanced Engineering Laboratory, there's one point he's sure to make: "I tell them, 'We're not just dealing with 300 studentswe're dealing with 3,000 fingers.'" As manager of the Ware Lab, with responsibility for the safety of the students who work there, Lucas maintains close watch over those 3,000 fingers, aided by other safety measures.

The Ware Lab houses several major undergraduate projects, but all Virginia Tech College of Engineering students have the opportunity, beginning their freshman year, to learn by designing and constructing their own projects. The Ware Lab and other student project areas function according to a basic premise: Virginia Tech engineering students should have the best hands-on learning experiences possible.

One of the most aggressive undergraduate hands-on programs in the nation, it has led to a tradition of success in national and international competitions.

Sweeping the competitions

For sheer enthusiasm and love of a project, no one outshines Ron Callis, captain of the Human-Powered Submarine Team. Callis, a mechanical engineering (ME) senior, has been part of the team since his freshman year, but he is proudest of this year's vessel, Phantom III. "This is my baby," he says, running his hand over Phantom III's sleek fiberglass hull, designed to be as small as possible to minimize drag.

studentsThe workings of Phantom III are low-tech bicycle gears welded to a propeller shaft. Engineering know-how shows up in the unique use of simple mechanisms and the design and construction of the hull. As a sophomore, Callis researched flow analysis so he could design the perfect hull size and shape for maximum speed. He and his teammates constructed a vacuum-sealed hull of two thin layers of fiberglass with foam in betweenonly one-half-inch thick, yet strong enough to withstand water pressure at a depth of more than 40 feet.

"We've created a product that represents Virginia Tech and represents it well," he said. Indeed they have--Phantom III finished first overall in a field of nine subs in the Human Powered Submarine Contest in Escondido, Calif., winning five of eight awards and placing second in the three other categories.

Pegasus, a "flying car" created in collaboration with engineering students from Loughborough University in England, won first place in the 2000 General Aviation Design Competition, sponsored by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This is the first time an international team has won the prestigious competition, which challenges engineering undergraduates to submit original designs of aircraft.

Pegasus is an "appropriate name for a vehicle that travels by road and/or air," says Jim Marchman, professor of aerospace and ocean engineering (AOE) and faculty advisor for the Virginia Tech team. The students designed Pegasus to meet or exceed the capabilities of top-notch general aviation aircraft. The flying car has a unique transmission system and automotive drive train that could use an aircraft engine for both flying and driving. The students designed several other innovations, including wings that deploy during flight and retract for highway use and an adjustable height suspension system allowing the wheels to be set at different heights and angles.

studentsThe Virginia Tech Autonomous Vehicle Team took top honors at the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition at Walt Disney World in Orlando. "This is the first year any team has swept all four events in the competition," notes faculty advisor Charles Reinholtz of ME. During the five years since the competition began, the Tech team has always won the design event.

An autonomous vehicle is a mobile robot that can navigate and drive completely by itself, with no human intervention. This year, the Tech team entered two unmanned vehicles. Artemis, built two years ago, has a revamped computer system, resulting in first-place wins in the follow-the-leader, debris course, and obstacle course events. The team also built a new vehicle, Navigator, replete with two color video cameras and a scanning laser range finder. Designed to carry land-mine metal detectors, Navigator won this year's design competition and also took second place in the follow-the-leader event.

Making "book stuff" real

"We design it, race it, break it, and fix it," says Tom Ryan, ME senior and a member of the Virginia Tech Mini Baja team. Tech engineering students have been building Mini Baja vehicles from scratch since 1984 for the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) Midwest Mini Baja competitions. For this year's competition, the students formed three design groups to collaborate on the vehicle they named DIESEL (Destroying Inferior Engineering, Simultaneously Eliminating Losers). "It's a real lesson in group dynamics," says team captain Laura Stridiron.

During the competition, the all-terrain, off-road vehicles raced and ran obstacle courses and pulled heavily-weighted sleds. The Tech team finished fifth overall in a field of more than 100 competitors. "Even though our students didn't place first this year, I believe they're the real winners because of all they learned by designing from scratch," says Hayden Griffin, director of the Division of Engineering Fundamentals and Mini Baja faculty adviser. His daughter, Angie, an ME senior who has worked with the Mini Baja for four years, agrees: "Working as a member of this team takes all of the book stuff and makes it real. I've learned things important to my engineering career that I couldn't have learned any other way."

World's first

Since Doug Nelson of ME formed and became faculty adviser of the Virginia Tech Hybrid Electric Vehicle Team (HEVT), it has created both the world's first fuel-cell powered car and SUV and has placed either first or second overall each year in the national FutureCar Challenge, sponsored by the Big Three automakers and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). In 1998, impressed by the HEVT's performance in modifying standard cars to operate on a combination of electric and gas power, the DOE gave the Virginia Tech team a fuel cell worth $250,000 to turn a Chevrolet Lumina into the world's first fuel-cell-powered car. During the 2000 FutureTruck Challenge, the HEVT readied a Chevy Suburban to operate on fuel cell power and placed third in the competition. For 2001, the HEVT members are confident that their entry of the world's first fuel-cell powered SUV in the FutureTruck Challenge will bring them back into first place.

    All manner of high-tech projects

    The following list provides a sample of the many difficult and varied projects Tech engineering students work on:

    Airplane projects-In addition to the NASA/FAA competition project discussed in the article, three others exist, including a design for an unmanned aircraft that can monitor forest and other environmental conditions.

    Formula SAE race cars-Undergraduates build these cars from scratch for the national Society of Automotive Engineers Collegiate Design Competition.

    Fuel Cell Test Stand-University researchers use the stand, built by a team of undergraduates with direction from faculty and graduate students, to perform tests on fuel cells for funded academic projects.

    Satellite project-With sponsorship from the U.S. Air Force, undergraduate students are designing and building two basketball-sized research satellites that will be launched by NASA's Space Shuttle in 2001.

    Virtual Corporations-This project includes both the Personal Electric Rapid Transit System, a first step toward creating a magnetic levitation transit system, and the Distributed Information Systems Corporation, dedicated to developing wireless communications and 3-D medical data technology.

    Unique hands-on labs

    Thanks largely to the generosity of alumnus Joe Ware (ME '37) and his wife, Jenna, Tech engineering undergraduates have the opportunity to design and build their own projects in a facility dedicated solely to that purpose.

    In addition, the Frith Freshman Engineering Design Laboratory gives Tech engineering freshmen their own hands-on project center. Ray Frith (agricultural engineering '51) and his wife, Violet, funded renovation of the Randolph Hall basement for the lab. Freshmen work with a variety of engineering devices, including computer hard drives, Briggs & Stratton engines, Black & Decker drills, Kodak cameras, and Leggo autonomous vehicles.