Posted December 8, 2011

Engineering freshmen use iPads to program and race hovercraft

Project is part of introduction to engineering course


It is one thing as an engineering freshman to learn to concepts of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering; it is another to put those concepts to use. That’s just what 155 Temple freshman engineering students did during the required “Introduction to Engineering” course this fall.

The students put their engineering skills to the test by racing iPad-controlled hovercraft they designed and built around a track. The freshman hovercraft competition culminated a 13-week intensive experience during which they were exposed to the fundamentals of civil, electrical and mechanical engineering.

“The idea was to get as much technology into the hands of the incoming freshmen as soon as we possibly could,” said John Helferty, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, who co-taught the course along with mechanical engineering assistant professor Shriram Pillapakkam and civil and environmental engineering associate professor William Miller.

The project involved the design, construction, and control of a small-scale hovercraft. The students were divided up into 36 teams, and each group used computed-aided design software to fabricate the mechanical structure of the hovercraft. When design was completed, students mounted various fans, motors, rudders, and electronics to the hovercraft base.

The students then programmed the hovercraft’s onboard microprocessor to receive wireless commands from an iPad, which they used as a controller to guide the hovercraft around the track during the course’s finale.

“Over the first 10 weeks, we took the students by the hand and they made baby steps to get there. But in the end, there were some design issues in the hovercraft that they had to think through on their own,” Helferty said.

The hovercraft accounted for 30 percent of the student’s final grade, but the top three hovercraft teams received prizes of $1000 for first place, $500 for second place and $200 for third place, with funds supplied by NASA’s Pennsylvania Space Grant Consortium.

“The first time we demoed this during the first day of class, I think half the students had their hearts in their throats and about half of them were ready to drop the course. But in the end, this in the penultimate in engineering design, at least for engineering freshmen,” said Helferty. “I’m really proud of them. There were 36 different groups with 36 different designs.”