At UA, Industry Enables Education

Tucson Embedded Systems donated an 8,000-square-foot lab space complete with vehicle hoist, and it provided racks, flat benches, power strips, cleaning agents and other supplies.
June 3, 2011
ENGR 450/550 students gather around the less flashily painted of two autonomous mining vehicles at the San Xavier mine.
ENGR 450/550 students gather around the less flashily painted of two autonomous mining vehicles at the San Xavier mine.
0 0 1 818 4669 University of Arizona 38 10 5477 14.0 Normal 0 false false false EN-US JA X-NONE

Tucson Embedded Systems, or TES, played a key role in student efforts to resurrect two autonomous mine vehicles last semester in ENGR 450/550.

"Without TES, it wouldn't have been possible because we didn't have a facility where students could work on the vehicles," said Larry Head, who heads the University of Arizona systems and industrial engineering department.

When Freeport-McMoRan donated the vehicles, still worth more than $500,000, to the UA, Head contacted David Crowe, TES president and CEO – a longtime supporter of UA engineering – asking for help.

Not only did the company agree to donate an 8,000-square-foot lab space complete with vehicle hoist, it also provided racks, flat benches, power strips, cleaning agents and other supplies. In addition, Jon Schwab, a TES engineer who has been the company's liaison with UA engineering for the past five years, took the class himself, and spent many evenings with other students working on the vehicles.

TES develops, designs and manufactures a variety of information technology software products for the aerospace, defense and commercial industries. The company specializes in systems design, development, integration and testing of hardware and software systems.

Because TES is involved with defense contracts and works closely with Raytheon, it is a restricted facility. While that might have stopped the project at some companies, TES took the extra effort to devise a system that would give students access to the autonomous vehicle work area. The solution called for students to be accompanied at all times by Schwab or one of several students who also work at Raytheon and have credentials to work at TES.

Spending weekends and evenings with engineering students is nothing new for Schwab, who has mentored TES-sponsored senior design teams at UA for the past five years. Schwab usually meets with the teams at least once a week during the two-semester interdisciplinary senior design course. Meanwhile, the company contributes $7,500 to fund the team's work.

In 2010 the TES team won the best overall engineering design award at UA's annual Engineering Design Day competition. They built a robotic vehicle that could drive itself point-to-point using GPS navigation while avoiding obstacles.

This year's senior design team extended that project by modifying the vehicle to deploy a series of sensors that measure temperature, humidity and sound. These sensors then were linked together in a network. The team also wrote network protocols to allow another group of students to communicate with and drive the robots, Schwab said. They also built an android application to go on cell phones.

This application now can be applied to the full-size autonomous mine vehicles that Schwab and other students resurrected last semester in ENGR 450/550.

By first working with applications on small, 4-foot-square, 16-inch-tall senior project vehicles, the students built a margin of safety into the project, said Schwab, a 2005 graduate of UA's computer engineering program.

"If we messed up and ran into something, it doesn't break anything," he said. "But if we mess up with an 8,000-pound beast of a truck, it will drive through a brick wall."

The company has worked closely with UA engineering on other projects, such as the 2007 DARPA Urban Challenge, which called on engineering teams to build an autonomous vehicle that could drive itself through 60 miles of urban traffic.

TES also provides internships for engineering students.

"When I was in school, I waited on tables at various restaurants, and I would have loved to have had an internship here in town," said Crowe, a 1989 UA computer engineering graduate. "So we try to hire interns whenever we can."

Supporting students helps the company, as well, Schwab added. The senior design projects involve concepts TES is studying, and the students provide valuable work in the areas of prototyping and testing.

"I really enjoy working with students, and we also use the projects as a recruitment tool and interviewing tool," Schwab added. The company has hired some students from the senior design teams.

"You get to see everything they do outside of class, their work ethic and, definitely, how they work in a team with very diverse people," Schwab said. Sometimes, they might be students who would be passed over in a traditional interview because they look academically average, but who have the enthusiasm, work ethic and teamwork skills to make outstanding engineers.

The relationship with TES and other companies that provide similar support is vitally important to UA's engineering program, said Jeff Goldberg, dean of UA's College of Engineering. These companies offer opportunities for students to work directly with practicing engineers and often with cutting-edge technology.

"The more real-world projects we can introduce into our education programs, the better it is for our students," Goldberg explained. "Engineering is not a spectator sport – you have to go out and do it! Practice on real projects helps make our students better engineers upon graduation and this helps all of the companies that employ our students."

"One of our strategic goals for the college is to improve our curricula by bringing in more experiences in complex, interdisciplinary projects like those supported by TES," Goldberg added.

Without these relationships, a valuable class or project might not happen at all, which could have been the case last semester without TES support for the ENGR 450/550 project.