Royal Engineers put University on the high-tech map

By Sandra Snyder

Create “the next great embedded technology invention.”

That was the main challenge put forth by the Intel-Cornell Cup, a prestigious college-level engineering competition created to empower and encourage student inventors.

In the minds of four University of Scranton Royal Engineers, the next big thing is a Universal Motor Controller Embedded System that eliminates the need to build separate circuits for individual motors. In other words, how efficient would it be to have a single, time-saving device that can power several pieces of technology simultaneously?

The student engineers asked themselves that question and came up with a solution in the form of the motor-controller device. The idea was good enough to net the University engineers a third-place finish among just 22 teams in the country who had made it to the Cornell Cup’s final round, in which embedded technology’s most innovative applications went head to head for up to $10,000 in prizes and, perhaps more important, some serious recognition in the tech world.

A two-day summit that wrapped up May 2 at the Kennedy Space Center Visitors Center in Florida was the culmination of a year-long academic experience for the four University engineers: Nathan Williams of Carbondale, a junior electrical engineering major and team leader; Luke Alonso, a freshman electrical engineering major from Chester Brook, Timothy Thomas, a junior electrical engineering major from Lake Ariel; and Benjamin Degler, a graduate computer-science student from Saylorsburg.

They were advised by Professor Nicholas Truncale, director of the undergraduate physics lab.

Truncale explained the nature of the device in layman’s terms.

“Engineers work with all different types of electric motors on a regular basis,” he said. “The problem in electrical engineering with these motors is that you need different connections for each of these. You also have different power requirements.”

That means that once an engineer masters, say, a direct current, or DC, motor, he or she still has to repeat the same process again and again when switching among motors.

The Universal Motor Controller is a self-contained device that works “in plug-and-play fashion,” Truncale said, and had never been done before.

“It’s really good for the engineering student as well as the person at home tinkering with electronics,” he said.

The device interfaces with various motors at once and is capable of operating a moveable device in multiple dimensions. Showcasing their idea as they advanced in the competition, the students demonstrated the power of the device using a single-axis solar tracker, a two-axis telescope and a three-axis laser-pointing device.

All of those devices, while technically complicated, have practical applications. For the solar tracker, for example, the universal motor controller uses astronomical data from the U.S. Naval Observatory to continuously keep solar panels facing the sun, thereby maximizing energy output.

The device contains four main subsystems that allow the user to plug in three different types of motors: a DC motor that can be controlled bi-directionally, a stepper motor and a servo-controlled motor. The devices operates via mobile applications.

The Intel Cornell Cup is modeled after the Intel Cup China, which attracts more than 26,000 students. The competition was designed to provide an imagination-fueling “expo spirit” that encouraged students to dream big. Potential ideas for competitors included intelligent home appliances, radar imaging systems, in-store sale and inventory systems and whiz-bang toys or other forms of home entertainment.

Organizers said from the outset that the best execution, not necessarily the best idea, would win the grand prize of $10,000, and the University had some intense competition.

This year’s first- and second-place winners were an autonomous, solar-powered multicopter/tank known as SCRAM, designed at the University of Central Florida, and an intuitive prosthetic arm created at the University of Pennsylvania that may eliminate Phantom Limb Pain, or PLP.

While other projects, particularly the tank, were mind-blowing, Truncale noted that most teams from other schools were made up of senior-level students who were getting senior credits for their projects.

“My guys did this for no credit,” he said, adding that judges and others in Florida were impressed by that. The University’s team also included a freshman, Alonso, of whom Truncale said, “We’re hoping he becomes a leader going forward.”

Truncale added that the device was all the students’ idea and he would take no credit for it.

To build the device, the students used Intel Galileo boards, which are crucial to the Foundations of Engineering class. That class, Truncale said, introduces students to “the fun things they can do with these majors.”

That’s not to say the work was not intense.

“We made everything from scratch, except a printed circuit board,” Truncale said.

Degler, the team’s graduate student, who worked on the software-development side of the project, making the application to control the hardware, echoed his professor’s excitement, saying it was his first large-scale project into which he could “dive deep.”

But he’s hardly finished with the project yet. In fact, he and his teammates are already tweaking the device with an eye toward the next competition.

“We have an idea to make everything open source,” Degler said.

“We’re looking to come back here next year,” he said of the competition, which was open to all undergraduate or master’s-level students in engineering, science or computer science at any accredited U.S. university.

Truncale is on board with the dream to repeat as finalists and excited about the exposure that awaits University students in the engineering, academic and corporate worlds.

“I’m just glad they put the University of Scranton on the map with all of these big schools,” he said.