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Student teams show off nano-satellites, unmanned aircraft

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Blaine Friedlander

Autonomous unmanned airplanes, concrete canoes and satellites for improving GPS were just some of the projects displayed by Cornell student teams at the College of Engineering undergraduate research showcase Sept. 17 in Duffield Hall.

The Cornell Racing team -- celebrating its 25th anniversary -- for example, designs, builds and tests a formula racing car every year to compete against 140 teams from as far away as China, South Africa and India. "Our car goes from 0-60 [mph] in 3.1 seconds; that's faster than a Ferrari Enzo," said Anthony Lim '13, co-team leader. Cornell Racing is a nine-time world champion at the Formula SAE, annually held in Michigan.

The ChemE Car team, on the other hand, builds shoebox-sized cars that run a specified distance and stop on their own, entirely powered by chemical reactions. The team's zinc-carbon battery-powered Zoidberg won the 2010 national championship, and this year their alkaline battery powered Zoidberg II has already placed first in the regional conference. Bender 4.0, winner at the 2008 nationals, was powered by hydrogen fuel cells. "We use the iodine clock reaction to stop our car. Depending on the initial concentration of reactants, the solution turns from clear to black at a particular instant. We built a circuit that detects light passing through the solution," explained Woojin Kim '12, team leader.

The Steel Bridge team, which competes each April, engages in computer-aided design each fall semester and welds together a 20- to 25-foot-long, 5-foot-high bridge during the spring semester. "The bridge must hold 1,500 pounds of weight without deflecting more than an inch. We are judged on economy and appearance," said Beverly Yang '13, a civil engineering major.

The CUSat/Violet team builds nano-satellites, measuring 2-3 feet in size and weighing less than 110 pounds. In 2007, CUSat won the U.S. Air Force-sponsored University Nanosat-4 Program, which earned their satellite the right to be launched on the multimillion-dollar Falcon-9 rocket heading to the International Space Station next year. "The CUSat will be testing a new GPS algorithm for subcentimeter accuracy," said Tricia Hevers, a graduate student in the field of aerospace engineering.

Another Cornell-built nano-satellite, Violet, will be launched at the end of next year. "Violet is a technology demonstrator that will test out control laws for gyroscope-based steering," said Michael Goetz, a graduate student in the area of aerospace engineering. Violet gets its name from the ultraviolet telescope that it will carry on board.

The Cornell Mars Rover team competes in the annual University Rover Challenge, where in addition to navigating a rough simulated Martian terrain, the rovers have to perform such tasks as collecting soil samples from specific sites, flipping switches and dropping packages to "downed astronauts." "We use aluminum for the body and plastic for the arms to be within the cost and weight constraints," said Laura Gilmour '13, a mechanical engineering major.

The Human Flight Project team is building an electrically powered, remote-controlled aircraft to compete in a Cessna-sponsored competition in April. "The aircraft has to carry a payload of 3.75 pounds, navigate a circular course and climb to a height of 100 meters," said Ravi Surdhar, a graduate student in the field of aerospace engineering.

The CUAir team builds autonomous, unmanned aircraft capable of performing reconnaissance operations like locating GPS coordinates and determining the shape and other attributes of a particular target. "This year we'll have a DSLR camera mounted on gimbals and a Core i7 processor onboard," said Phillip Tischler '13, a computer science major.

The Cornell Concrete Canoe team -- five-time national champions -- mixes cement, water and glass into a mold made out of Styrofoam and plaster to build racing canoes. "We use a fiberglass mesh to add strength," said Kate Grosslein '13, a civil engineering major. "We use a hydration tent to keep the canoe moist, and test compressive and tensile strength every week," added Miriam Asher '14, a mechanical engineering major.

The Cornell Baja Racing team competes in off-road racing competitions, which are judged on cost, feasibility and innovation. "Last year, we had made an amphibian vehicle which could travel through both land and water. We tested it on a dirt bike track and Cayuga Lake," said Chris Hendrix '12, business leader.

In addition, several individuals displayed their research at the event.

Graduate student Vivek Venkataraman is a writer intern for the Cornell Chronicle.

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