UNO Electrical Engineering Students Soar to New Heights with Senior Design Project
A University of New Orleans blimp on Saturday circled near the ceiling of the UNO Recreation and Fitness Center, where approximately 500 guests had gathered for Get to Know UNO, the University's signature fall open house.
"Years ago in Engineering, we needed something to really demonstrate what our students are capable of doing," Kim Jovanovich, assistant dean of the UNO College of Engineering. "We decided that we would create a blimp. Eventually, this thing will have the ability to drop bookmarks. We've thought about using it at basketball games at half-time. We've thought about putting a camera in it that can look down and take pictures."
The approximately 12-foot-long blimp with a four-foot diameter is a special fixture in the UNO Engineering Department, said Jovanovich. Last year a group of seniors under the direction of UNO Engineer Professor Parviz Rastgoufard developed a vision for the blimp and took their designs through proof of concept as part of a senior design project. This year, five electrical engineering students adopted that blimp as part of their own senior design project. The radio remote-controlled blimp will be handed down to future classes with aims of continuous improvement, he said. Future iterations will expand capabilities, possibly enabling the blimp to become a fun addition to recruitment efforts, athletic events at Lakefront Arena or other venues where students and prospective students are assembled, the engineering students said.
"We built this," said Donald Leonard, a 33-year-old senior electrical engineering major from Raceland, La., describing the work he and his peers did for their senior design project. "We not only deal with the engineering aspects, we deal with the business aspects – whether it could be sold or anything like that."
UNO boasts the only civil engineering, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering program in New Orleans, as well as a School of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. The electrical engineering program is divided into two concentrations of study in computer and power engineering. Each student in the engineering program must pursue two senior design classes and partake in a year-long engineering project before graduation.
The Senior Design Project courses taught in the College of Engineering require small groups of engineering students to brainstorm ideas; select a feasible project; collaborate on design plans; build the product; refine the design; create a business plan that addresses community need, sales potential and marketability; build a website to sell the product and finally, partake in a year-end symposium. At the symposium, engineering students present their designs, products and business plans with a sales pitch to fellow UNO engineers, as well as engineers from the greater New Orleans community.
Leonard has worked on the UNO blimp for the last year with friends and classmates Darryl Alexis, 26, of Pascagoula, Miss.; Derek Doredant, 24 of Metairie; Dustin Duhe, 23, of Westwego and Ray Fellows, 33, of Terrytown. All five plan to graduate from UNO in December and started their senior design project last spring under departmental guidance.
Once the engineers developed their prototype, they spent months testing sensors, motors and radio controls, said Leonard. They captured technical readings of the blimp's performance at each iteration, hoping to pass the information along to future generations with an eye toward continuous improvement.
The polished product, which boasts a New Orleans Privateers logo on the basket, belies a number of false starts and reworked plans, the future engineers said. Originally designed to be controlled by an iPhone web application, it is now operated by an electronic speed controller, said Duhe, a computer engineering major.
Duhe originally programmed the blimp to operate on Arduino, a microcontroller board wherein a computer chip or processor functions as "the brain of the blimp" and controls the blimp's motors and direction, Leonard said. On Saturday, Alexis steered the blimp deftly through the Recreation and Fitness Center using a radio remote-controlled link replete with joysticks. The radio remote-control link ensured easy flying indoors with no hitches, the group said.
As prospective students and guests watched, Alexis demonstrated how the blimp's interior motors turn two sets of propellers – one vertical and one horizontal – at the blimp's base. The joystick allowed him to manipulate the motors and propellers one by one and thus controlled the blimp's movement, allowing it to tilt, dive and turn. Propellers turning in alternate directions helped provide stability, Jovanovich said.
Altogether the project, including testing materials, cost about $1,800 to complete, Leonard said. The Engineering Department provided start-up funds and the five students will contribute up to $300 each from their own pockets.
The students will now spend the rest of the semester creating and honing their business plans, compiling technical documents, building a website and preparing for the final symposium, Leonard said. The group faces steep competition.
Other senior design projects now in development include: a "Smart Kitchen," an automated kitchen inventory device that allows household or restaurant chefs to evaluate a recipe or menu items based on what's in stock in their kitchens; a 3-D printer, which allows users to print life-sized items as large as two-feet-by-two feet from melted soft plastic; a remote-controlled camera and a PMU, which takes readings of a utility company's power surges, changes and amplitudes.
"It can tell Entergy Corporation or a similar company whether there is a spike or something wrong with their feeder," said Leonard.
An eight-year-old boy asked Alexis a pivotal question.
"How high can it go?" the little boy said, eyes trained on the blimp circling the ceiling.
Alexis shrugged, calculating the distance before the receiver could no longer receive signals.
"As high as a helicopter," the engineering student said.