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UMD students win Air Force engineering award

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UMD senior Garrett Drechsler smiles while admiring the first-place Air Force Research Laboratory 2017 University Design Challenge award he and his fellow engineering students received for their Airfield Seizure Heavy Hauler. Representatives of the U.S. Air Force visited the campus Wednesday morning to congratulate the students and present the award. Engineering students at left are Colby Carlson (left) and Bret Wippermann. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 5
Colby Carlson rides atop a prototype robotic pack mule on the UMD campus last month while Josh Duellman runs alongside with the robot’s controller. UMD mechanical and electrical engineering students developed the robot for the Air Force Research Laboratory Challenge. Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com3 / 5
Representatives of the U.S. Air Force offered military challenge coins as mementos for families and friends of the UMD engineering students. The coin features a conceptual image of an airfield seizure heavy hauler vehicle. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 5
The first-place award was a thick tire with an inset plaque. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 5

U.S. Air Force officials were on campus at the University of Minnesota Duluth on Wednesday, offering accolades and a trophy to 22 engineering students who won a technology design competition for a load-hauling robotic pack mule.

The Air Force-sponsored competition included schools from across the nation, including the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Auburn, Michigan Tech, BYU, Texas A&M and Johns Hopkins University.

About 100 people gathered in the Swenson Civil Engineering Building for the award presentation.

"We only choose the best to participate. That means you competed against the best. And you won," said Mike Lazalier, senior manager at the Air Force Research Laboratory at Arnold Air Force Base in Tennessee, where the competition was held last month.

The UMD team — all seniors from the Mechanical & Industrial Engineering and Electrical Engineering departments — earned first place for their load-carrying device that can be run remotely, with a video-game control panel, or run hands-free, where the robotic pack mule follows its master into battle or any other chore.

The robot can carry 350 pounds and run nearly silently, on battery power, through even rough terrain for up to two miles at speeds up to 15 mph. It's made with an aluminum frame and parts from a couple of four-wheelers, and is powered by a Tesla battery.

The students — 14 mechanical engineers and eight from electrical engineering — worked on the project since the start of the school year. The challenge to build a "resupply device" came with a $20,000 grant to work on the project.

Graduating senior Zach Ludwig, the project manager, said it was the most integrated effort ever by mechanical and electrical engineers on a UMD project. And the judges said that integration showed in the results.

Lazalier said he was impressed not just with the engineering of the winning entry but of the "build quality" and its operational abilities. The pack mule is exactly what the Air Force was looking for to help special operations forces as they try to capture and hold airports during hostilities, he said.

The device is the kind of "real-world solution that the guys in Afghanistan and the guys in Iraq will be able to use, hopefully very soon," Lazalier said. "And, hopefully, it will save lives."

The Electrical Engineering and Mechanical & Industrial Engineering departments are part of UMD's Swenson College of Science and Engineering. The college has 3,275 undergraduates and 220 graduate students and is home to 10 academic departments, as well as the Large Lakes Observatory, the UMD Air Force ROTC program, and the Iron Range Engineering program.

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