Montana State University

Ingenuity on display at fall Engineering Design Fair

December 11, 2008 -- By Michael Becker, MSU News Service

An exuberant Tim Montague, center, reacts to the successful navigation of a robot with teammates Chris Gibson, left, and Ambrose McJunkin. The computer engineering seniors built the robot for the IEEE Micromouse competition scheduled for April 2009, where robots race to complete a maze with the fastest time. (MSU photo by Kelly Gorham)   High-Res Available

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MSU News Service
Tel: (406) 994-4571
BOZEMAN -- Solving a maze takes time and patience, or, if you happen to be a Montana State University computer engineering student, you could just build, and program, a robot to do it for you.

That's what seniors Chris Gibson of Butte and Tim Montague of Bellevue, Wash., did. Both were part of a group that constructed an eight-inch-tall, battery-powered robot that uses onboard sensors to find its way through table-top mazes.

"It's cool seeing something you built work like this," Gibson said as he watched the robot motor through a maze.

Gibson and Montague's robot was one of more than 20 projects on display Thursday at MSU's fall Engineering Design Fair. The annual fair, which filled a ballroom in the Strand Union Building, showcases design projects by undergraduates from throughout the College of Engineering.

Joining the maze-solving robot were several dozen high-tech projects, such as an unmanned surveillance plane, sun-tracking solar panels, a magnetic suspension system and a vest lined with a liquid-filled tube system that can both heat and cool its wearer.

Other, more eccentric projects included a motorized winch system designed to automatically flip mattresses and a device that can cook an entire breakfast at once, eggs and all.

But the fair is about showing off more than just engineering and science skills. Many student projects also worked with outside sponsors or companies that gave them design specifications that had to be met, which made the projects more like working in the real world.

Mechanical engineering student Matt Bittinger's group worked with several local companies, as well as one from Billings, to evaluate the energy efficiency of soy-based insulation and ceramic paints. The products they tested are actually sold by those companies, which made the experience all the more real for the group, he said.

"It gave me more of an exposure working with real companies out in the world," said Bittinger, a native of Simi Valley, Calif. "That side of it was really nice."

Another group, which built a portable solar-powered cooler, worked with the campus chapter of Engineers Without Borders. The chapter challenged the group to create a cooler that could be used in remote locations where electricity and refrigeration aren't available, said group member and electrical engineering senior Marty Noll.

"One of the design challenges they gave us was to design this for use in Kenya, where fighting disease relies on keeping medicines cool," said Noll, a native of Montrose, Colo.

The group's cooler weighs about 100 pounds and has solar batteries that can keep the contents cold overnight. They built the cooler over the course of a single semester for just pennies, using salvaged and donated parts, he said.

In addition to the experience of working with someone else's design specifications, Noll noted that the group learned valuable lessons about working and communicating with each other on a complicated project.

"We learned to collaborate with each other," he said. "That's really valuable."

Contact: Michael Becker at 406-994-5140 or