Design course balloons into something special

(Edmonton) Brendan Smith, Jed Lim, and Kevin Shikaze watch as the culmination of their four years of engineering—and in some ways their undergraduate degrees—drifts through the U of A Butterdome.

After countless hours working on their capstone design project, the electrical engineering students are as silent as their blimp, watching for any signs of problems or malfunctions, cautiously making sure it stays on course,and being relieved that their first real test flight is going well.

“This is literally the first 30 seconds of testing,” Smith said, not taking his eyes off the blimp. “This is the first opportunity to fly it in a big space.”

Created to allow undergraduate engineering students to apply their classroom knowledge in practical ways, the capstone projects challenge them to create something that goes beyond their textbooks and lectures.

The goal of the trio’s project was to create a vehicle that can remotely or autonomously survey large indoor areas such as a warehouse or convention floor. For the blimp project, Smith developed the control software, while Lim and Shikaze worked on the electrical and mechanical systems.

For students in the course, this lift off marks the end of late nights in labs applying their knowledge and solving engineering problems during their capstone design courses.

The blimp design team’s efforts are paying off and the students are left with time to tweak their final design and polish their presentation. Others are still putting the final touches on their projects. On April 9 and 10 students will present their projects to panels of judges from industry and academia, and have the projects graded.

Based on the time students put into the capstones, their projects are a serious matter.

“It was basically a full-time job. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if we put in more hours than a full-time job,” Smith said.

Smith knows all too well the toll the late nights and unforeseen problems can have on students but says the end result, especially after four years of engineering education, is worth it.

“Of course it’s stressful, but it’s very interesting at the same time,” Smith said. “I don’t think you could have the degree without these design projects. It’s so useful to be able to do real design. Solving problem sets is one thing. Spending late nights in the lab solving real problems is another.”