Penn Mechanical Engineers Win Top Prizes at the Cornell Cup

The senior design classes held in each of the School of Engineering and Applied Science’s six departments are an opportunity for University of Pennsylvania students to put their skills to the test, by picking a real-world problem and developing a new piece of technology to solve it.

These yearlong courses culminate in a Senior Design Project Competition, where student teams from various departments compete with one another for prizes. Every year, some intrepid students seek out additional challenges in international competitions, such as the Intel-sponsored Cornell Cup.

This year, four student teams from the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics took home top prizes at the Cornell Cup, despite the competition’s focus on embedded systems, a discipline within electrical engineering.

MEAM teams Team BionUX, Team DORA and Mechanek secured three of the Cup’s seven first-place awards, which include $2,500 cash prizes, iPads and an invitation to exhibit their technology at Intel’s booth at the 2015 San Mateo or at New York City Maker Faire. Mechanek also won the Media Award, a $1,000 cash prize that goes to the team with the most professional website. Another MEAM team, BAM!3D, received one of seven second-place prizes, which include a smaller cash award and Kindle Fires.

“It is somewhat unusual to have that many mechanical engineers showing up at the Cornell Cup,” says Graham Wabiszewski, a lecturer in Penn Engineering who is teaching this year’s MEAM senior design class. “It’s less odd when you realize that we have a very strong mechatronics program at Penn. A lot of our mechanical engineering students are as adept with things like motors and microcontrollers as classical mechanical engineering concepts.”

Wabiszewski also notes that inspiration from the success of TitanArm, the 2013 Cornell Cup winner whose team members were also mechanical engineers, motivated this year’s MEAM teams to compete in the Cup.

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, or 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.

BAM!3D is developing a 3-D printer suspended from a balloon. Touted for its ability to make complex and customized shapes, 3-D 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.  

“When you look at the average level of the projects this year, I’d put us at the upper end of the curve,” Wabiszewski says. “My takeaway is that our teams are pretty serious, and have shown a high quality of work across the board.”

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