NAU engineering students programmed to win

2013-04-04T05:00:00Z 2013-04-04T08:25:00Z NAU engineering students programmed to winMARIA DiCOSOLA Special to the Daily Sun Arizona Daily Sun

A group of NAU students is about to put the pedal to the metal, but it won't be a revving engine and lead-foot that wins the race. Their championship relies on a sustainable design and energy efficiency.

With the assistance of faculty and a local engineering business, these electrical engineering majors have been working to create an electric-powered car to compete in the Shell Eco Marathon in Houston, beginning today. It is NAU's second year in the competition.

John Tester is an associate professor of mechanical engineering and has headed many automotive challenges with students throughout his 13 years at NAU. Through his connections in the industry, he is able to give his students more real-world perspective through competition. After several years of helping students create competitive cars, Tester quickly became the car guru on campus.

The challenge of the Shell Eco Marathon is to build a car to be used by average people, while making it as fuel-efficient as possible. Their car must be able to have at least one person of standard size driving the vehicle.


Since the body used in last year's competition was still intact from a mechanical standpoint, this year's group of electrical engineers wanted to focus on improving the electrical system.

"They completely gutted the electrical system and they kept the frame and wheels," Tester said.

The new system includes a touchscreen system built and programmed from scratch by the students and a new electric battery system.

However, this year's students are at an automatic disadvantage in the competition, as last year's vehicle was built for two passengers.

"The unfortunate side effect is that when you have a two-person vehicle you're required to have more structure, which adds more weight, which would reduce the efficiency," Tester said.

Despite the large frame, this year's team put a lot of effort into the body of the car, shedding nearly 50 pounds from the shell.

The total cost of the car so far is $12,000 -- $8,000 for the original body and electrical system from last year, and $4,000 for the new electrical system this year.

The shell of the car, as well as workspace and technical assistance, was donated by Novakinetics LLC, a locally owned business that builds composite aircraft parts, such as airplane wing tips.


It is the opportunity to compete with schools from around the world that drew Aniza Brown, a senior electrical engineering major, to the project. As the former president of the Institute of Electrical/Electronics Engineers association on campus, Brown is in charge of running the operation.

Being the leader of the group and the physically lightest person on the team has its perks: Brown will also have the honor of driving in the competition. While she has had her hands on every part of the project, she is most looking forward to putting her programming skills to work to create the touchscreen controls.

Brown says she is grateful for the unique experience.

"The whole [mechanical] process was tedious but I would never have the opportunity to do anything like this if I wasn't on this team," Brown said.

While Brown has already secured a job as a programmer with General Dynamics after graduation, cars still hold a special part of her interests and goals.

"I am so excited (to drive the car)," Brown said. Just being able to see a car through -- since I eventually want to build cars -- fits in with what I've wanted to do."

Tester believes attending competitions such as the Shell Eco-Marathon is a great way for students to marry theory and experimentation -- as well as reinforce their skillsets.

"There's a lot of things that impact theory, and there's no better way to find out than to test it and do it yourself," he said. "This type of competition brings the theory and practice together."

Entering in an international competition also allows the students to size up the competition in their field and learn from observing other universities.

"The advantage of going to a competition is that you get to go to an event where you realize you're not just from NAU -- you're part of engineering," Tester said. "Here's little NAU going to a competition, and they're evaluated under the exact same criteria as the big schools. You can cry about lack of resources or whatever, but you're evaluated the same as everyone else in your profession. I think that really matures them in their profession better than isolating yourself on campus with your design project."


Jim Corning, a mechanical engineer and the founder and president of NovaKinetics, was instantly attracted to the project due to his interest in electric vehicles.

"When I heard there were students working on an electric vehicle I thought, you know, I have done a lot of experimenting and destroyed a lot of expensive stuff learning what worked and what didn't, so I wanted to help them out a little bit and share that experience so that they could maybe avoid burning things up," Corning said. "I have years to play with these things -- as where they've got a semester and a half."

Since moving their business to Flagstaff in 2001, Jim and his company have been working with Tester and the engineering department.

"John (Tester) has tended to steer car projects our way, particularly if they needed body work," Corning said. "We helped the students build a body for the electric urban mobility vehicle, in addition to working with them on the drive train."

NovaKinetics donated workspace, the materials and tools used for the body of the car, the battery and years of knowledge to the group.

"We're like facilitators," Corning said. "We're a little bit of a force multiplier for them because we have all the tools set up and ready and easy-to-use, as where they could conceivably round up all those tools, but it would cost them some time and some money and they'd have to carve out some space in the shop at NAU."

In return, Corning said the company has picked up valuable part-time and summer employees after working with the students. But more than labor, Corning receives personal and professional enrichment from working with the young engineers.

"Mostly I think it re-energizes my sense of where we're going each year," Corning said. "It's fun to work with these guys. This is a really fun way to be reminded that there are a lot of really sharp and energetic people out there and that the next generation is going to do just fine."

Maria DiCosola is this year's NAU-NASA Space Grant science-writing intern at the Arizona Daily Sun.

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