Student engineers make strong showing at Cornell Cup

Each of the six departments in the School of Engineering and Applied Science features a senior design class, where students team up to put their skills to the test, picking a real-world problem and solving it with a new piece of technology.

These yearlong classes culminate with the Senior Design Project Competition, where the top teams from each class pit their inventions against one another, but for some students, there are other ways of testing their mettle.

The Cornell Cup, an international engineering competition sponsored by Intel, is one such outlet. Penn senior design teams perennially apply to the contest, with one taking home the grand prize in 2013, but this year’s field is bit unusual. Though the focus of the competition is on embedded systems, a discipline within the electrical engineering field, the 2015 finalists include four teams from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics (MEAM).

“The Cornell Cup is usually dominated by electrical engineers, but truly novel systems increasingly require additional expertise from other domains such as mechanical engineering,” says Graham Wabiszewski, a lecturer in Penn Engineering who is teaching this year’s MEAM senior design class. “There’s so much you can do with electrical engineering, but adding the mechanical side really brings the system to life.”

Wabiszewski attributes the strong MEAM showing to Penn’s popular programs in mechatronics and robotics, which require a synthesis of electrical and mechanical engineering skills. Inspiration from the success of TitanArm, the 2013 Cornell Cup winner, whose team members were also mechanical engineers, also played a motivating role.

This year’s finalists are BAM!3D, Mechanek, Team BionUX, and Team DORA.

BAM!3D is developing a 3D printer suspended from a balloon. Touted for its ability to make complex and customized shapes, 3D printing works by adding self-hardening material layer by layer. By attaching a concrete extruding nozzle to a balloon controlled by a series of motorized tethers, BAM!3D would get around the height limitations of other systems, opening the door to printing building-sized structures.   

Mechanek aims to improve a critical piece of car racing gear: the HANS device. This harness restrains a driver’s head and neck, preventing whiplash injuries and skull fractures. Current HANS devices limit mobility by design, so the Mechanek team is planning to use an active dampening system, rather than rigid straps, to increase users’ range of motion while also reducing the risk of concussion.  

Team BionUX is working on a haptic feedback system for prosthetics. They will be prototyping a prosthetic arm that can provide temperature, pressure, and orientation sensations to its users. Such as device would be easier to use, and might also be able to combat phantom limb pain by providing a more natural experience. 

Team DORA’s project involves building a new kind of “telepresence” robot. Existing devices allow users to control what amounts to a mobile videoconference screen from their computers, but Team DORA—Dexterous Observational Roving Automaton—envisions a more immersive experience. By donning a virtual reality headset and controlling a set of grippers, users would be able to interact with faraway places through a robotic avatar.

Both the Cornell Cup and Senior Design Project winners will be announced in early May.

Cornell Cup