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McLaughlin Holds Third Annual “Smart Car” Extravaganza

On Friday, December 11, Professor David McLaughlin of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department and his students from the Department of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering (MIE) will hold their third annual “smart-car demo.” Visitors are invited to attend, watch, and enjoy this whirling-dervish demonstration of scale-model, collision-avoiding, smart cars, as built by the students in McLaughlin’s Fundamentals of Electrical Engineering course, ECE 361. The event will be held in the Student Union Ballroom between 11:15 a.m. and 12:15 p.m. See video of a previous year’s demonstration

The annual demonstration is a sort of anti-demolition derby, in which scores of model smart cars – built in teams by the 185 undergraduate MIE students in McLaughlin’s class – duck, dodge, and dart across the floor in a choreography of collision avoidance. The demonstration marks the culmination of a semester-long assignment to build model cars using Arduino processors, motors, transistors, gears, and various sensors to monitor and control the vehicle movement.

“As you can see from the video, the event generates a lot of excitement amongst the participants,” as McLaughlin explains. “All the designs are different, and they reflect the creativity and ingenuity of the individual teams. The students engineer collision-avoidance capabilities into all their cars, as a requirement for participating in this event, but since they are prototypes, some of them may end up bumping into each other, and that tests the ruggedness and reliability of the different designs.”

McLaughlin’s course is intended to provide non-electrical engineering majors with the relevant electrical and electronic engineering concepts and device knowledge to work effectively in the kind of multi-disciplined design, development, and manufacturing groups they could very well be assigned to as professional engineers.

As McLaughlin notes, “Our MIE students work in teams to build electronic cars, while they simultaneously learn the fundamentals of electrical engineering. It has been a very successful experience that seems to produce educational impacts beyond the semester.”

Some of the students have gone on to publish papers on their experience in the course. Others have found summer internships doing electronics. Others have become TA’s for next year’s class or made the decision to go into graduate school and study robotics and other fields that blend mechanical and electrical engineering concepts.

Undergraduate teaching assistants are key element of the course, explains McLaughlin: “Each year we’re fortunate to have a dedicated group of TA’s who enjoyed the course last year and are motivated to help with the lab instruction in the present year’s class. This year’s TA ‘Dream Team’ includes: Tiffany Hua, Kasey Smart, Sarah Keenan, William Howe, Stephen Childs, Griffin MacCarn, Marina Di Cocco, Tom Nilsson, and Pavel Grigorash. This team runs the lab portion of the course, and its enthusiasm and support for the 185 students enrolled in this course really makes all the difference.”

In what is now an annual tradition, McLaughlin develops a soundtrack to provide fitting background music for the demo. One year, for example, the madcap display opened with Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries playing in the background. The ensuing floor show resembles a crossbreeding of bumper cars, a video game, and the Mass Pike at rush hour. Most of the cars work with fine precision, stopping within a few inches of any other cars they encounter. But a few create chaos by smashing into anything and everything.

This demo for ECE 361 is a well-planned climax for the course, which covers basic electric-circuit elements and laws. That includes first- and second-order circuits, AC circuit analysis, systems concepts, diodes, bipolar junction transistors, field-effect transistors, digital logic, transistor amplifiers, electro-magnetics, transformers, transducers, generators, and motors. (December 2015