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Creative Solutions

Engineering students in the Inventor’s Studio course found that link to the marketplace in their desire to communicate electronically with their grandparents.

Team Pet Sitter

Team Pet Sitter: Students in Inventor’s Studio are challenged to identify a market need and then design something to fill it. After conducting research in the field of animal behavior and reviewing existing patents, one group identified a market for an automated pet sitter that would entertain pets that spend hours at home alone. They designed their prototype to look like a chewable dog bone that can sense a pet approaching and quickly move away, catching the animal’s interest. The device also will dispense treats and train dogs to stop barking. Photo by Mark McCarty

“I find I talk to people all the time on Instant Messaging, but I don’t often talk to my relatives because they’re not on e-mail,” explains senior Tim Ryan. “We wanted to create a device that would allow people who aren’t computer literate to send and receive e-mail.”

Ryan and his classmates Neil Grabowsky, Jay Foster, and Adam Wishneusky developed “T-Mail,” a technologically “smart” device that looks like an attractive wooden box. The user simply writes a letter with the recipient’s name at the top and slides it into the envelope-shaped slot at the top of the box. The machine scans the letter, identifies the recipient’s e-mail address in its program, and sends the note to the recipient as an e-mail attachment. The device also will receive and print out return e-mails.

Why is such a device needed when people could just call or write a letter? Instructor Burt Swersey says he pushes his students to ask these questions and identify problems that others haven’t recognized.

“The best inventors look at the things we all take for granted and say, this could be better,” says Swersey, who was granted 12 patents during his 25 years in the medical equipment industry. “We have to convince students to strive for the ideal solution, [which is] not the safe solution, but the one they may not know how to do.”

For seniors Jerusha Chacko and Bill Thornewell, the challenge was to find a device that would entertain pets that spend hours at home alone. After conducting research in the field of animal behavior and reviewing existing patents, their four-person team identified a market for an automated pet sitter. They designed their prototype to look like a chewable dog bone that can sense a pet approaching and quickly move away, catching the animal’s interest. The device also will dispense treats and train dogs to stop barking. Thornewell says he relished the opportunity to build an idea from the ground up.

“After four years in engineering, I was tired of just crunching numbers and pushing out formulas. I wanted to see what else goes into creating a product,” says Thornewell. “The hardest part was selling the idea—we still have to convince Burt that it’s technically feasible, that it’s marketable, and that it’s patentable.”

While Swersey places a strong emphasis on “thinking big” and striving for the ideal solution, he says a great idea, even an impressive prototype, is not enough; they must work out the details. Students are required to adhere to a design process, beginning with the identification of an unrecognized need and the creation and analysis of multiple solutions, then moving to a detailed design mock-up, calculations and testing and, finally, taking steps to protect and potentially patent the design.

“When they say, ‘I have something that will work,’ I say, ‘OK, show me the calculations,’” says Swersey, who requires students to keep a design notebook complete with sketches, calculations, and formal drawings. “It’s their responsibility as engineers to completely document their work, so someone else could replicate it and to protect the intellectual property they’re working on.”

Understanding the patent process is an integral part of Inventor’s Studio. To qualify, designs must be “new, useful, and not obvious to someone skilled in the field.” Thus far, three patents have been granted to student projects, one is pending, and several other applications have been filed.

Since its creation in 1990, Rensselaer’s Office of Technology Commercialization has helped students and faculty obtain about 100 patents, with another 200 inventions currently being evaluated. Chuck Rancourt ’70, the office’s director, says the majority of patents are granted to graduate students and faculty, but the numbers at all academic levels have been increasing steadily.

“We’ve seen the disclosure flow [from faculty and students] triple since we first began,” says Rancourt. “And this process is a tremendous learning experience. They develop an appreciation for what this is all about, and it will definitely help them in their careers later on.”

Intro to Ideas

For most engineering students, the art of invention begins in the sophomore year in Introduction to Engineering Design, a class held in the O.T. Swanson Multidisciplinary Design Laboratory, Rensselaer’s state-of-the-art center for design, prototyping, and manufacture.

Four days a week, the laboratory is overrun with sophomore teams that have one semester to design and create a device to solve a specific problem. This year, 20 student teams are attempting to create ping pong-playing robots that can respond to opponents at many different levels.

Amid a flurry of flying ping pong balls, sophomore James Antalek eagerly describes the components of his team’s robot, which features two long barrels that move along a table-length pneumatic slide. The slide represents the robot’s legs, controlling its movement by applying air pressure to push it from one side of the table to the other. The white plastic barrels, meanwhile, represent its arms—spitting out balls at different speeds and in different directions, all controlled by a computer program. But the robot’s game is not random. The team also has devised a laser screen made up of pocket lasers that can record and predict the trajectory of the player’s ball. Antalek says the computer then will direct the robot to respond appropriately.

“That screen represents the robot’s eyes, so it can know where the ball is going and the quality of the return. The robot will be able to respond properly with a slow or fast return depending on where you’re hitting it to,” explains Antalek. “Players can set the computer to emulate real game play or to challenge themselves... and there are always the Easter eggs you can put in there to surprise people.”

Team member Damien Pinto-Martin admits they were so eager to build their prototype, they fell behind in the documentation of their work. He says Swersey, their instructor, forced them to slow down and demonstrate on paper the progression of their design and the evidence that it would work.

“He accuses people of arm-waving, saying their design is fantastic, but we have to show proof,” says Pinto-Martin, who’s working on a team of 11 students. “We have to show the calculations so that other people can see exactly what we did…and so our teammates, who all have different roles, can see what we’re doing, too.”

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Rensselaer Magazine: June 2003
President's View Your Mail From the Archives Hawk Talk Class Notes Features
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