UMD students win Air Force engineering award
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.