What started out as a senior design capstone project has turned into a startup company and an out-of-this-world opportunity for a team of Aggie engineers.
In response to the NASA X-HAB 2013 Academic Innovation Challenge, a pair of faculty members in the Electronic Systems Engineering Technology (ESET) at Texas A&M University submitted a unique concept proposal to design, develop, deliver and document a new wireless power-monitoring and control system for NASA’s Deep Space Habitat (DSH) Program.
NASA’s development of a Deep Space Habitat will allow a crew to live and work safely in space for up to a year on missions to explore cis-lunar space, near-Earth asteroids and Mars. The Habitation Systems Project is a multicenter team of NASA architects, scientists and engineers, working together to develop sustainable living quarters, workspaces, and laboratories for astronauts on next-generation space missions.
The proposal submitted by Dr. Joe Morgan and Dr. Jay Porter, professors in the Department of Engineering Technology and Industrial Distribution, dealt with using a funded research project to directly support an undergraduate capstone design project. The proposal recommended that a team of four ESET undergraduate students do the initial design and development of the ISA 100.11-based wireless system as their capstone project and then transfer the prototype system to another team of Texas A&M students from the Mobile Integrated Solution Laboratory (MISL) to perform delivery, installation, integration, testing and acceptance by NASA DSH program engineers.
“We had never undertaken such a complex system development research contract in this way before,” said Porter, ESET director and the technical adviser to the capstone team. “Now that we have been highly successful with our NASA sponsor, I am sure the ESET Program will continue to use this model in the future.”
Four students — Akeem Whitehead, project manager; Jeffrey Jordon, hardware engineer; Christian Carmichael, systems engineer; and Derek Garsee, software engineer — formed eXperimental Control Logic Laboratory (XCLLabs) as their startup capstone company and selected the X-HAB problem statement for their capstone project in Fall 2012. After a number of design reviews that were conducted online to as many as five NASA centers, the system design was approved, paving the way for the implementation of electronic hardware and embedded and graphical software in Spring 2013.
“To meet the NASA research contract schedule, XCLLabs had to work at an accelerated pace and were required to conduct two additional design review checkpoints beyond what is normally required for a capstone design team,” said Morgan, capstone course director. “The team was highly motivated by the NASA engineers and thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to demonstrate their design and development skills.”
Handoff from XCLLabs to the MISL student team was integrated into the capstone project’s final demonstration, presentation and documentation process. Mickie Byrd, senior ESET student, and Colton Schimank, junior ESET student, have now assumed responsibility for the project. The two students have worked with NASA Johnson Space Center’s DSH engineers since the handoff in May. Supervised by Porter and Morgan, the MISL team has conducted four on-site visits to NASA Johnson Space Center to complete final field testing and configuration of the power monitoring and control system.
During the week of June 24, the final system acceptance testing was begun. All required integration and testing was performed, including some additional testing requested by NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. The final endurance testing — operating continuously without interruption for a period of a week — will begin in July.
Dr. Kristina Rojdev, aerospace engineer in the Systems Architecture and Integration Office at NASA Johnson Space Center, said, “NASA has a need for instrumentation that can be easily placed or rearranged for critical measurements. The DC Smart Plugs created by Texas A&M fulfill this need by providing data on the power consumption of a DC component, as well as providing the capability of controlling the power to the DC component, all through a wireless network. This project was very challenging and the students and faculty at Texas A&M produced hardware that was very impressive. The development and demonstration of this technology is an exciting first step towards future flight hardware in wireless instrumentation.”
Dr. Alan Scott Howe, senior systems engineer with the Mission Systems Concept Group at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, added, "The Texas A&M university team has a very high skill level and were quite impressive with their work. It must be noted that the work they have done is right in our NASA critical path, and not just a side project performed for academic value. The students that had a hand in the Smart Plug design and implementation can be proud that they have ownership of future human spaceflight endeavors, and that their design will become heritage for future actual flight hardware that will be implemented for generations to come."
Morgan said, “The more motivated and engaged a student is, especially in an undergraduate program, the more learning takes place.”
Porter added, “Having our top students interacting with NASA engineers and working on out-of-this-world problems requiring state-of-the-art technologies is by far the best way to create an experiential learning opportunity that will serve our students well as they move into entry-level positions in the public and private sectors.”