James Madison University

LOGO: JMUAbout this series: This is the fifth installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.

Taking the Heat: Robot Being Designed to Fight Fires

It won't leap tall buildings, but it will open doors, detect fires and put out flames.

A robot being built by a group of James Madison University engineering students also will compete later this spring at the Trinity College Fire Fighting Robot Competition. The five students in the robotics group are part of the inaugural class of the university's Department of Engineering, which will graduate its first students in May.

The firefighting robot is the culmination of the group's two-year capstone project. Their challenge is to build a robot that can maneuver independently through a simulated four-room family home, evaluate and navigate multiple obstacles such as rugs, doors and furniture, detect a flame and extinguish it before exiting the structure. The robot is scaled far smaller than an actual firefighting robot would need to be, however, it will fight a fire nonetheless, albeit a small one.

The ultimate goal of the Trinity College competition is to produce a robot that can someday take the place of the traditional firefighters in dangerous situations.

"The robot's navigation and set commands are on board. Once you put the robot on the course, it does its thing without any interaction from the team. So all the logic commands have to be built in. It has to be able to navigate around the course, going in rooms, determining if there's a fire — in the form of a candle — and putting it out," explains team member Matt McHarg of Fairfax Station, Va.

PHOTO: JMU studentsBuilding the firefighting robot is simple as that — and as complex. The experience is teaching the robotics team a lot about the field of engineering. Building the firefighting robot from conception to reality has required the students to research and explore sensors and microprocessors, as well as the mechanics and electronics to build the robot.

It has also been a team approach.

"Instead of having a CIS major, an architectural engineer, a mechanical engineer, a computer engineer, all we have is four engineers from JMU and all we need to know to get the groundwork laid. From there we can learn what we need to know," says Jedediah Caldwell of Purcellville, Va.

Joey Lang of Centreville, Va., Peter Epley of Springfield, Va., and Pat Byerly of West Friendship, Md., round out the robotics team.

"Each one of us has strengths," Epley says. "I've got a programming and computer background, but Jed, Pat and Matt have more of the civil and mechanical. And Joey's got a very strong electrical background. And this has come from the last four years of each of us finding our niches in the department."

"No one knows it all, so we bring our own interests and expertise together. The result is collaborative problem solving," Lang adds.

PHOTP: design materialIn many ways, the robotics project mirrors the approach of JMU's new school, which puts a heavy emphasis on design. Each graduate must take six semesters of engineering design courses. Few other schools offer such a practical, hands-on approach to engineering undergraduates.

JMU's engineering curriculum and the capstone robotics project provide flexible exploration. "It is the perfect integration of the software and hardware," Epley says. "It's very cool to be able to build something and see it come alive."

JMU engineering students also look at problems from numerous angles. The general engineering program is based on four pillars of sustainability: economic, social, technical and environmental. Sustainable systems engineering is a strong and growing trend in the industry, according to ASME (founded as the American Society of Mechanical Engineers).

"General engineering is a great plus," says Epley, who entered JMU with a strong background in computer science. "When I came to JMU I had an interest in doing something more creative than just sitting in front of a computer doing programming and just focusing in on one thing. The general engineering program has allowed me to explore to see what I like and what I don't like, to find where my strengths are and to make something of it."

Byerly came to the program more interested in the mechanics of the program, so he has focused on the mechanical engineering of the robot.

PHOTO: JMU studentsModern engineering demands more than technical expertise, according to ASME. The complexity of today's systems requires not only a broad knowledge of engineering, but also the ability to communicate and collaborate to solve problems by finding solutions that consider the technical, economic, social and environmental impacts.

That's exactly what the robotics team has done. "If you don't look at everything," Epley adds, "you can't come up with the best solution."

"We come out as very marketable," Byerly says, reflecting on their pioneering academic experience. "We have learned to communicate, work in teams and solve problems. We've been exposed to a broad variety. We feel we can tackle any problem we're given."

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