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Junior electrical and computer engineering majors have designed and built circuit boards that control the turrets of small tanks, enabling them to fire laser beams with the speed and accuracy needed to hit targets.

The systems are autonomous in that no remote controls or computer programming are involved. The tanks, which measure eight to 12 inches long and six to eight inches wide, lock onto targets that emit infrared signals and fire lasers at them.

The students are given the tank platform and the motor that drives the turret with the laser cannon. They create all of the electronics and the process to make the sensors work.

The class will demonstrate and explain its creations 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday in Acopian Engineering Center room 429.

“It’s really a culmination of their analog experience at Lafayette,” says Todd Wey, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who teaches the design class. “We have a mandatory three-course sequence and this is the final required course of that track, so everything they learned over those three semesters they apply here.”

Unlike the earlier courses, where professors outline how each problem should be solved, the design element of the final class requires the students to do something they have never done before.

“They have to come up with how to do it – they start with a blank sheet of paper,” Wey says.

While the students enjoy taking on challenging problems, developing something from start to finish can be a daunting endeavor.

“The invention process — for them it’s the first time,” Wey says. “We spend a lot of time in the course work analyzing circuitry, but it becomes different when there’s not a circuit to analyze. It’s a different thinking process.”

Simon Mushi ’06 (Gaborone, Botswana) agrees that designing a circuit, which enabled the tank’s guns to lock in on the target and fire, was the toughest part of the process.

“The biggest challenge was mastering the whole target acquisition algorithm and getting that to work,” he says. “But once we got that, we become more comfortable with the whole apparatus.”

But developing the circuit was just one hurdle in a completely experimental process.

“It’s something you have to start real simply,” says Mushi, who is minoring in mathematics. “You start from an idea, then you simulate it, then you have to go out and get parts, then you have to coordinate with people in the machine shop and ask the machinist to make your part. But the more we did, the more comfortable it became.”

Classmate Jeff Mentzer ’06 (Lebanon, Pa.) agrees.

“At first it seemed a little intimidating; it’s a fairly large design compared with what we’re used to, but once my partner and I started getting into the actual design, we thought it was a lot of fun. We got a chance to apply what we’ve learned in class to actually making something work and do what we wanted it to do, so it was a lot of fun.”

And designing something completely original is accompanied by a certain amount of satisfaction.

“Having something come together and actually work, getting the hang of using a soldering iron, and soldering the parts to the board — it’s really interesting being able to watch those work and think, ‘Hey I designed that,’” says Mentzer.

A major goal of the course is to equip students with skills they will need when they graduate, Wey says.

“They’re doing things typical of what you would do on the job in this part of engineering,” he explains. “[What] we analyze in class are very sterile type situations where we consider a component to always work, as being very well behaved. When they get into the lab, they find it’s true some of the time, but they are getting experience with components when they misbehave. It’s lot of hands-on, industry-type experience.”

Mentzer says the skills he’s learned will definitely help him when he gets a job.

“It seems like there aren’t a whole lot of jobs where you design a little circuit and give it to a boss and they do with it what they want,” he says. “They want you to design systems from start to finish, so you need to know how to put everything together like that.”

Mushi adds that the project has instilled in him skills that will be useful in all aspects of his life.

“The whole aspect of working with a partner and the project management skills I’ve learned are some things I will be able to take from this class and apply to any other design projects I’m given,” he says.

Next year, says Wey, the students will pit their machines against each other to see which designs are the fastest and most precise.

Mushi is secretary of the student chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) and a member of the Tau Beta Pi national engineering honor society and Phi Kappa Psi fraternity.

Mentzer is a member of IEEE, the Phi Beta Kappa academic honor society, and the Eta Kappa Nu electrical engineering honor society.

Other students in the design course are Scott Curry, Amanda Driscoll, Laura Fredley, David Glasser, Sherrise Hatcher, Tricia Indoe, Edward Kimotho, Hugh King, John Kolba, Mark Lodato, Marc London, Zach Silverman, Joanna Vetreno, Danielle Wyckoff, and Yang Feng Zheng.

Categorized in: Academic News