Mechanical engineering doctoral student Caroline Schell and postdoctoral associate Peter Bui take us inside the emerging field of soft robotics in this experTU video. Members of Biological Robotics at Tulsa, these scholars understand what it takes to make their soft robot, fittingly named “Squishy,” respond to its environment, fragile objects and touch.
Sister and brother team Lydia and Barrett Moore had some special requests when they consulted with University of Tulsa mechanical engineering students last fall — no pink for Lydia’s customized bicycle and Barrett wanted a train theme for his personalized ride. Both Lydia and her brother were born with congenital limb differences in their arms and hands that make it difficult to ride a standard bicycle, so students from TU’s Make a Difference Engineering (MADE at TU) group took on the project to build, test and deliver bikes that cater to the kids’ individual needs.
The thrill of the ride
Beginning in October, students met with the children, father, Bryson, and mother, Mandy, executive director of the TU Student Success Team, to discuss bike modifications. MADE at TU’s priorities included complying with engineering specifications and standards to ensure the bicycles were functional and safe. “The bikes needed to be visible to car drivers, rideable on uneven pavement and most importantly, future proof so they can continue to use the bikes as they grow,” said mechanical engineering senior and team leader Anna Williams.
MADE at TU brainstormed ideas and narrowed them down to the most viable options. During the spring semester, the group met with the Moore family once a week to test new prototypes of the 3D-printed handlebar attachments andgain valuable feedback that could improve the design. The children’s enthusiasm was hard to contain as they tried out the latest changes. “We loved getting to know the family and see Lydia and Barrett’s confidence and skills develop from week to week,” Williams stated. “It is amazing to know something you helped design and create is bringing joy to a family.”
Once the TU group finalized the most effective prototype, they made permanent modifications to the shiny new bikes for their official debut. Williams said watching the brother and sister happily ride their bikes was the ultimate approval. “It is rewarding to see the impact of our designs as this is not always an opportunity available to university students,” she explained. “It is rare to transform theory into reality at the university level, and the positive opinions of Barrett and Lydia were the ultimate grade.”
Lydia and Barrett’s mother, Mandy, explained how important it was for the children to beindependent and ride bikes like their friends. When Lydia set agoal was to ride a bike without training wheels, her parents quickly realized she and her brother would need a prosthetic or adaptive bike to help them achieve this childhood milestone. “It was such a moving experience to see so many bright minds apply their mechanical engineering expertise to help our children,” Mandy commented. “We owe the joy on Lydia’s face the first time she rode her bike without training wheels to the students at TU. I’ve worked in higher education for 14 years. I’ve never met a more prepared, professional, and kind group of students. They not only built our kids these amazing bikes, but they also made them feel cared for.”
Skills for a lifetime
Williams, a TU soccer player, says she hopes to continue working on projects where she can apply lessons from daily life and college to help people enjoy lifelong skills. She plans to return to TU for a master’s degree in mechanical engineering and work in one of the department’s research laboratories. “As a TU athlete, I know the value of sports and activities that can help you develop friendships and abilities,” she said.
Fellow mechanical engineering seniors Suzy Evenson, Victoria Tucker, Michael Harris, Jennifer Smith, SulaimanAlshammari, Cole Ogg, Mohammed Al Abattahin and Ajwad Al-Essa joined Williams on the project. The MADE at TU challenge provided these students with real-world problem-solving that they will all encounter in their future graduate programs and careers.
The freedom and joy felt when riding a bike is a rite of passage every child should have the chance to experience. Lydia and Barrett are now the proud owners of custom wheels designed specifically for theirneeds and fun personalities.
Imagine a search and rescue situation where a robot combs through rubble to save a trapped individual or an agile robot is administered to detonate a bomb. The machines ideal for these types of scenarios are soft robots that can be built with a higher level of mobility at a much lower cost. Soft robots hold enormous potential to save lives and improve manufacturing, and the TU Department of Mechanical Engineering is adding this type of project to its current list of research initiatives.
Just announced with an official start date of January 2020, a National Science Foundation Emerging Frontiers & Multidisciplinary Activities grant worth $1.9 million has been awarded to Associate Professor Joshua Schultz and his biological robotics team. The NSF funding is the largest award Schultz has received in his career as a principal investigator and will support efforts to improve the mobility and control of fabric-reinforced inflatable soft robots. When applying for the grant, Schultz recruited the expertise of materials scientist and TU Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael Keller. Schultz and Keller are teaming up with two co-principal investigators from Brigham Young University: Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Marc Killpack and Assistant Professor of Computer Science David Wingate. Schultz said robots built at TU and soft robotics research underway at BYU will explore functions and capabilities that aren’t possible in traditional models. “Soft robots can bump, scrape and push against the world,” he explained. “They can accomplish tasks by running into a wall on purpose and then using the wall to support itself when it reaches for something.”
The concept of soft robotics also involves devices that can reach under a door to retrieve an item, entwine objects or squeeze into a small gap between a door that’s ajar. Soft robots can conform to features in an unknown environment and change shape, and when they collide with another object, neither the robot nor the other item is damaged. Equipping the device with smart technology allows it to detect that contact occurred and behave intelligently to complete the task. “We are trying to make these robots autonomous, so they can operate on their own without a human continuously issuing commands in real-time,” Schultz said. “Previous soft robots needed the ingenuity of a human to complete the tasks that the robot was doing. We will use new mathematical models, smart materials and sensors, and machine learning, so that robots can do the task autonomously without supervision by a human.”
The faculty plan to host graduate students at both TU and BYU to assist with the project and add a TU post-doctoral fellow to conduct research in kinematics and materials science. For the next four years, the group will focus on developing concise models for the motions of a fabric-reinforced rubber tube that can be evaluated quickly by a computer. Schultz described the device as an arm made of silicone. One side of the arm is made from a fabric similar to the canvas of a tent while the other is constructed of a more flexible material. The arm’s fabric can set up, bend, move and fold, but it won’t stretch. As the arm inflates, the stretchy side stretches but the fabric side will only bend. “As this robot is made, it can only trace out one path in space,” Schultz explained. “It can’t reach robotics workspace, but we want the robot to be pear, ring or cone in shape — we want it to have some volume in which it can reach everywhere inside its range of motion.”
Adapting to workspace with smart technology
Keller and Schultz are experimenting with materials that can be patched to the arm and communicate with a computer. By turning on one patch or a combination of patches at different times, the arm’s wall stiffness will change and expand its potential workspace. “The robot will be able to reach in some useful volume to do tasks, so that’s progress in the device functioning like a robot instead of just a conversation piece,” Schultz said.
Once the robot can reach a given volume, it must move to a specific spot within that space, so controlling movement and alleviating bounce from the stretchy material is key. Schultz and Keller hope to change the stiffness and inflation of the robot’s walls in a way that if it is bumped and begins to bounce, they can stop the interference and smoothly move it to pick up something or move against something. “Robotics is used in all kinds of industries, but the reason robots are limited in their application is because they can easily bump into something, and they lack dexterity to do a task,” Schultz explained.
Scientists and engineers have successfully demonstrated soft robotics designs in the past but adding the component of smart technology poses a challenge. Schultz said the elastomeric materials of soft robots allow for many sensors to be molded into the robot to measure touch, proximity and the shape of objects. If successful, the project will produce improved algorithms to process sensor inputs and enable the robot to distill them into meaningful information about itself and the world. Schultz said that while the designs they plan to develop are technologically advanced, they are financially feasible. “An industrial robot might cost upwards of $20,000, and you have to make a big purchase before you can find out if it suits your company’s needs,” he said. “Soft robots are more like disposable income — they’re made from pretty inexpensive materials.”
Overcoming challenges with soft robotics
Basic models developed by the team will present an algorithm that will configure a variety of possible shapes for the robot at each instant. Data gathered by the platforms will help the soft robot learn how to select the appropriate commands, which include the combinations of pneumatic valve signals and tunable stiffness patches in the rubber walls, to autonomously complete useful tasks where the robot must push on the environment.
“We want our robot to be able to overcome challenges like hanging drywall and reaching into clutter amongst trees, tall grass, rocks or debris to bend around anything in its path,” Schultz said.
To learn more about biological robotics at The University of Tulsa, please contact Professor Schultz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Mechanical engineering senior Rachel Deeds and TU President Gerard Clancy unveiled the Sights and Sounds sculpture between McFarlin Library and Kendall Hall in August. In 2018, the University Innovation Fellowship program suggested the idea for a sculpture that would represent the collaboration and connectivity of campus. TU’s NOVA Fellowship sponsored the project early on before Deeds pitched the idea to the 2018-19 mechanical engineering senior class. She and a group of seniors took on the sculpture as their capstone project, and after the spring semester ended, the sculpture became her Tulsa Undergraduate Research Challenge (TURC) project. She worked with TU Physical Plant to complete the construction and installation.
Sights and Sounds is intended to represent inclusion and diversity on campus. Six stainless steel columns stand for the variety of academic endeavors at TU, connected by the curved stainless steel beams across the top. The cherry wood beams that link the curved beams symbolize the spirit and creativity of TU students past, present and future. Stained glass windows, made by TU students, are included in the wooden beams. Members of the TU community who walk through the sculpture can pause and wind up a music box that plays the TU alma mater fight song. The tune unites everyone through the universal language of music.
Deeds said the entire project would not have been possible without the involvement of organizations, departments and faculty from across campus. Mechanical engineering advisers John Henshaw and Steve Tipton supported the project, and Clancy encouraged the students when they were required to pitch the idea to the TU Board of Trustees for installation approval. At the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Clancy praised Deeds and her fellow students for a student-led and student-designed project. The senior design project group included Deeds along with Abdullah Alnajrani, Kevin Kim, Sammy Ibala, Drew Port and Zeming Wang.
“I hope this project inspires others to take their ideas and grab the reins of their education here to really make the most out of all the possibilities,” Deeds said.
“I would like to say thank you to everyone who helped pull this project together,” Deeds said. “And a super special thank you to John Turner and Terry Hutson at TU’s North Campus for the long days, endless advice and high-quality work they put into helping me bring together all of the pieces at the end.”
Members of the Biological Robotics at Tulsa (BRAT) Research Group in The University of Tulsa’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, are studying the muscle condition hypotonia to improve the quality of life for children who suffer from it. Graduate student Bradford Kerst and Joshua Schultz, an associate professor and BRAT group director, partnered with teachers and therapists at Little Light House in Tulsa to learn how hypotonia reduces muscle tone and strength. Their research is sponsored by a grant from the Disability and Rehabilitation Engineering program at the National Science Foundation and is TU’s first nationally funded project in rehabilitation robotics.
Kerst said he and Schultz are beginning the final phase of data collection through a device that supports a child’s head and is worn by Little Light House students who experience weak neck muscles as a result of hypotonia. Known commercially as a Headpod, the device holds a child’s head in a neutral posture. Current therapy for hypotonia involves supporting a child’s head from a lightweight suspension frame using a cable and head strap, but TU researchers plan to build a robotic prototype that relinquishes a portion of the support when a child does not need it. This will allow therapists to program a regimen that trains neck muscles in the hope that strength development will enable children to hold up their heads on their own.
“We will use a motion capture system and the initial data gathered to pick out the right motor size for the device, and we’re working with therapists to determine what safety features we need,” Kerst explained.
Little Light House students who have worn the data-capturing Headpod so far have been able to access switches near their head to activate a switch-adapted power wheels truck. Lynda Crouch, assistive technology coordinator at Little Light House, also explained that, in some instances, the Headpod device has been attached to a stander. “Because of the support of the Headpod, we can see secondary results of increased visual attention and social interaction with other students. Their heads are supported in an upright position to see their world. Without the Headpod, they keep their head down or we have to position them reclined in wheelchairs.”
Robotics to the rescue
With mentoring from Schultz, Kerst and an undergraduate researcher who will be added to the TU team this fall will develop biomechanical computer models to program the device’s robotic support system. The project is Kerst’s first exposure to robotics research and has piqued his interest in a career that uses rehabilitation robotics to improve head control.
“Our goal is to understand hypotonia and learn new information about the disorder that we can use in the future to help people,” he said. “It’s been overlooked in a lot of research, so it’s something Professor Schultz and the therapists discussed and saw a need to study.”
As researchers complete the final phase of data collection, Little Light House therapists anticipate a TU design that will improve head positioning for students and allow them to participate fully in daily classroom activities.
“We already knew our students were special, but this research has shown us how unique and incredible they are,” said Crouch. “We’re learning how important it is to capture data that reflects what we as therapists and teachers observe in daily interactions with the children.”
As participants in the TU organization Make a Difference Engineering (MADE at TU), a group of mechanical engineering seniors built and designed a device for special needs children at Tulsa’s Kendall-Whittier Elementary. Nicknamed the “steamroller,” the three-piece set of children’s play equipment was developed as the students’ senior capstone project in the TU mechanical engineering program.
TU students began meeting with teachers and staff in the fall of 2018 to determine the greatest needs for children with physical and emotional challenges at Kendall-Whittier. Once a concept was approved, students spent months designing a prototype and building the final project for delivery. The steamroller is a device that applies deep-pressure therapy useful for children on the autism spectrum, among others. The project is combined with a climbing wall and slide and engineered to fit the limited space available in Kendall-Whittier’s special needs facilities.
The group of mechanical engineering seniors included team leader Rizka Aprilia along with Ahmed Al-Alawi, Almuqdam Al-Mawali, Ahmad Amsalam, Zach Freistadt, Hafsa Khan, Jacob Waller and Cong Xie.
Engineering and other STEM fields can be a boy’s club, but mechanical engineering senior Rachel Deeds is working to make sure women have a strong future in STEM. As a student at The University of Tulsa, Deeds rose quickly through the ranks in the Society of Women Engineers, interned for national organizations during the summer and worked tirelessly to create space and opportunity for other women and girls interested in engineering.
Finding her own role models
Deeds was a little hesitant when she first became interested in STEM and had to find her own role models. One of these was her father, teaching her to fix things as a child. “He was a stay at home dad who was consistently working on a ton of different projects. I really got to experience giving back to the community in fixing things with him. He inspired me to go against the stereotype and pursue my interests in that,” she said. Deeds also looked up to the great history of women in STEM who went against the grain and innovated in their fields. This would lead her to a major in mechanical engineering at TU, with a minor in innovation and entrepreneurship.
Originally from Fayetteville, Arkansas, Deeds visited the campus several times when deciding where to finally attend school. In every visit, Deeds was blown away by how welcoming and nice people were at TU. This supportive environment along with the opportunities in her program would eventually help her move on to so much more.
During summer breaks, Deeds landed internships with national companies that would help build her résumé and refine her interests. Deeds distinguished herself at Caterpillar, working as the only engineer on a team of business students. “It was kind of challenging at first, being that unique perspective,” Deeds reflected, but she didn’t let it discourage her.
One of the accomplishments Deeds was most proud of at Caterpillar was creating workflow, defining process maps that are still utilized by the company today. “Whenever a new product came online, I mapped out the who what and when,” she explained. Her initiative and talent set her apart in her internships. These qualities would also make her a leader at TU, and eventually in the Society of Women Engineers (SWE).
Attending the Annual SWE Conference in Philadelphia, Deeds had the opportunity to network and connect with other women in STEM fields. “As a prospective college student, I didn’t want to be the only one in my position,” Deeds said. “I looked for a way to give back to students like me.” This experience inspired Deeds to pursue a leadership position within SWE and she was eventually elected president of the TU SWE chapter.
Deeds’ work in the community doesn’t stop there. She also worked with Make a Difference Engineering at TU (MADE AT TU) to design and build therapeutic devices to help special needs students in Tulsa and was selected as an SWE Future Leader, the first TU student to hold that position. As an SWE Future Leader, Deeds acted as an exponent for SWE, sharing her experience and inspiring young women around the country to become the engineers of the future.
With people like Rachel Deeds leading the way, the future for women in STEM is bright.
In a recent article available on the Advanced Functional Materials website, researchers in the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences at The University of Tulsa have demonstrated a new composite that can indicate damage using visual, temperature or magnetic detection. The article “Multimodal Damage Detection in Self-Sensing Fiber Reinforced Composites,” written by TU Ph.D. candidate Matthew D. Crall, Samuel G. Laney (BS ’16, MS ’18) and Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael Keller, discusses how the new material is a significant step forward in developing biomimetic materials that allow for rapid and simple detection of damage. This new technology has potential applications in aerospace, where inspecting composite materials (such as carbon fiber or fiberglass) for hidden damage is a complicated and time-consuming process.
Damage detection is critical in these applications since even small damaged regions in composites can reduce the strength of the material by as much as half. The composite works by incorporating a small channel, such as a blood vessel, that is filled with a liquid, like blood. Damage breaks open the channels and the fluids bleed into the damaged area where they react and form magnetic particles. These particles can then be detected by a magnetic detector, heated by a magnetic field and imaged with an IR camera, or seen visually by the color change associated with the reaction.
To learn more about this research and the published paper in Advanced Functional Materials, please contact Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering Michael Keller at 918-631-3198 or email@example.com.
Throughout their collegiate careers, TU engineering students are encouraged to experiment with original ideas and tackle product design from scratch. For more than 20 years, Professor John Henshaw, chair of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, has tasked his students with performing failure analysis on commercial products. In 2014, the project became a class competition, and the winning team featured three female engineers.
Seniors Hannah Emnett, Hannah O’Hern and Katy Riojas, a 2015 Goldwater Scholar, under the team name KH2, conducted a failure analysis on a pair of German double-action bone-cutting forceps, used primarily in cardiovascular surgery. Of the eight independent analyses conducted by the team, Riojas said all pertained directly to the forceps’ material properties. “For example, in order to determine the specific type of steel used to create the forceps, we performed a microhardness test and a metallurgical analysis,” she said.
The students were required to answer three questions: How the forceps failed, how they functioned and how they could be redesigned to prevent additional failures. Team KH2 determined the forceps failed from mechanical overload caused by the stress concentration at the base of the device’s pincer. According to the team, the force required to cut a bone is much less than the force required to fracture the forceps, suggesting the forceps failed from misuse. Additionally, the surface clearly indicated a brittle fracture, which was further evidence of failure from misuse.
“Our mission was to take the design one step further and improve the safety of the forceps to prevent future failures, even those caused through misuse,” Emnett said.
KH2 recommended increasing the radius at the base of the pincer to minimize the stress concentration. Also, increasing the cross-sectional area at the base of the pincer would alleviate induced stress on the forceps. The redesign reduced maximum stress by 42 percent.
In addition to teaching students the importance of thorough product testing, Riojas said the process has confirmed her desire to pursue a career in medical device testing and design. She and the KH2 team received Lowe’s gift cards as the inaugural class winners of the Hackworth-Wilson Prize for Excellence in Failure Analysis, a new award named in honor of mechanical engineering alumni Matt Hackworth (BS ’96, MS ’98, PhD ’00) and Kelly (Wilson) Hackworth (BS ’96, MS ’98), former TU classmates who are married and now serve on the TU Mechanical Engineering Industrial Advisory Board. Matt’s project as a student in the mechanical engineering course involved the analysis of an exploded soda can under the mentorship of Henshaw.
“Matt and I did close to $1 million in external research for Alcoa, Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch and others,” Henshaw said. “When he and Kelly asked how they might give back to TU in a creative way, we established the Hackworth-Wilson Prize.”
To learn more about supporting students in the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences, please contact ENS Director of Development Natalie Adams at 918-631-3287, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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