North Carolina State University Engineering Students Show Off Projects

December 10, 2003

Dec. 10, 2003
News & Observer; CNNMoney ( NY , NY )
By Jonathan B. Cox, staff writer
Copyright 2003 News & Observer

Dec. 10-- RALEIGH, N.C. --In the student center at N.C. State University last week, a robot raced to extinguish a fire.

Students chatted through headsets connected by lasers. And visitors applied for passports by scanning their fingerprints digitally.

The gadgets all sprang to life from the fertile minds of students in the university's department of electrical and computer engineering. Each semester, seniors are required to complete design projects, getting a final shot of real-world experience before they trade in bookbags for briefcases.

"I'm always amazed," said Bart Greene, director of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Design Center at N.C. State . "They started out with a one- or two-paragraph description of a project and at the end of 12 weeks, they come up with something as sophisticated as they have."

The students are given a limited budget and other guidelines, such as required battery life, that they must meet. The ideas come from industry, professors and students.

Keith Hill, a senior from Raleigh , worked on the team that designed the fire-fighting robot, one of 36 projects on display last week to showcase the students' work. The idea came from the Trinity Firefighting Competition in Ohio , where children and adults compete in various categories to build the best firebot.

Hill and his team collectively invested about 600 hours during the semester to design the device.

In a demonstration, infrared sensors searched for walls in a tabletop maze, and UV sensors sought heat. Using a remote-controlled tank as a base, the robot found a burning candle and extinguished it.

"It's an extreme learning curve," said Hill, who said the experience was invaluable. "When you have a long-term project, you run into real-life problems."

That's the goal. Greene said the engineering industry prefers to hire those with experience working on projects. They learn more quickly and understand the complexities of designing products.

They also learn to deal with other techies. "Under pressure, there's tension," said Matthew Lee, 24, from Chapel Hill . "Lots of good tension."

His group designed the laser-communication system. With it, users can communicate across 100 meters (about 110 yards), with their voices transmitted by a thin red line.

A professor had assigned the project three times before, but Lee and his colleagues were the first to make it work. The contraption could have military uses or be implemented in manufacturing plants where machines can interfere with wireless devices.

The students don't have to worry about the final applications, only prove a concept works.

However, some students are contemplating bigger ambitions. One group showed designs for a "graduated computer." Students could buy it when they first enter school and upgrade throughout the stages of their education.

Another group expanded on an idea by a local entrepreneur, A.J. Attar, to create a digital passport. It links a person's fingerprint to a database that could be maintained by the government. When the person enters or exits the country, a finger would be scanned, letting officials keep track of visitors. Attar is considering seeking more funding for the project.

Although Lee isn't as optimistic for his laser communication device, he would be happy to exploit his experience.

"If you know about anybody looking for something like this, I'm looking for a job," he said.