NASA - College of Engineering & Natural Sciences


TU students design, build and test device to support outer space exploration

group of seven students standing side by side with the middle person holding a mechanical device
Left-right: Rodolfo Coronado, Kayla Curtis, George Legan, Rianne Brown, Julia Behlmann, Taylor Kinnard, Max McElyea

As humanity expands its exploration of outer space, the ability for equipment firmly to grasp a wide and unpredictable range of terrain is critically important. This requirement became vividly apparent in 2014 when Philae, a robotic lander from the European Space Agency, was unable to anchor onto a comet when its drilling mechanism failed, significantly decreasing the amount of data it was able to collect. NASA does not currently have a technology that can consistently anchor to a wide variety of surfaces to prevent future failures like that of Philae.

Taking up this challenge during their final year was a group of mechanical engineering undergraduates led by Rianne Brown (BSME ’22). She was joined by Julia Behlmann (Class of ’23), Rodolfo Coronado (BSME ’22), Kayla Curtis (BSME ’22), Taylor Kinnard (BSME ’22), George Legan (Class of ’23) and Max McElyea (BSME & BS ’22).

For the program’s Senior Design Projects course, Brown and her teammates designed, built and tested a lightweight, compact device that can anchor to a variety of rock textures and ice. This “Basic Rock Anchoring Device” – known as BRAD – is capable of exerting at least 10 pounds of holding strength in a microgravity environment.

BRAD has eight legs that are extended and retracted from a cylindrical main body. Each leg consists of six feet with embedded fishhooks that utilize microspine technology to grip porous rock, smooth rock, and ice without penetrating the rock surface. The main body contains an inner mechanism system run by multiple pulley systems and locking mechanisms.

BRAD received the 2022 Oklahoma Society of Professional Engineers Outstanding Engineering Achievement Award, Student Category. This is a statewide award that includes every public and private university in Oklahoma.

“Our device enables more secure and reliable anchoring of antennae, landers and other apparatuses,” remarked Brown, who today works as a manufacturing engineer at the Kennedy Space Center on the Orion Crew Module Adapter for the upcoming Artemis missions to the moon. BRAD has endless applications and would give future missions and explorers more confidence as they seek to venture farther, reaching distant planets and landing on icy comets, thus making space safer and more accessible.”

Designing for NASA

Motivation to embark on this project arose from the team’s desire to take part in NASA’s Micro-g NExT program. This is a national design challenge that presents college student engineering teams with real project proposals composed by NASA engineers that address current space endeavors. Teams submit their concept pitches in October, and the groups chosen to advance to phase 2 then have the opportunity to test their devices in June at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab (NBL) at Johnson Space Center.

On a mission

illustration of a cylindrical rock-anchoring device with eight retractable legs

Stage one of BRAD’s development involved creating a conceptual design that responded to a challenge, proposed by engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, to create a reusable lunar surface anchoring device. Brown and her teammates got to work brainstorming in September, using cardboard and popsicle sticks to rough out various prototypes.

The next step was to submit their proposed conceptual design to the Micro-g NExT program in October. This submission included a detailed report and a fully functional CAD model that took over 100 hours to complete. Two months later, the team received the good news that they had been selected to advance to phase 2.

With the start of the spring 2022 semester, Brown et al. began developing their device one sub-component at a time: from feet, to legs, to the internal mechanism, to other subsystems and, finally, the user interface. Each month they submitted various reports and made presentations both to TU and NASA giving progress updates and explanations of their design. Indeed, throughout the duration of the project, the students were paired with a NASA employee as a mentor and were in continuous conversation with her and the Micro-g NExT team.

NASA engineers were so impressed with BRAD that they invited the team to the NBL to test their device in a microgravity environment and to submit their final report. Brown and her teammates were the first University of Tulsa students to advance to that stage.

Dropping anchor

person wearing a diver-astronaut suit submerged in a pool while holding the basic rock anchoring device
Diver holding BRAD with its legs stowed

Four of the students traveled to the NBL in June to test BRAD, where their device proved both safe and smooth to operate. At the end of testing, the diver commented that he never felt in danger of the device’s hooks and was able to easily follow the provided instructions. Testing in the NBL demonstrated the effectiveness of the safety features and user-interface labels and that BRAD functions mostly as intended in a microgravity environment.

Professors John Henshaw and Steven Tipton have co-taught the Senior Design Projects course for over 30 years. “In all that time, I don’t think either of us have ever seen a team work harder or smarter than the BRAD students,” commented Henshaw. “They displayed every positive quality we hope to instill in our students: hard work (exceptionally so!), extreme attention to detail, a never-say-die attitude, superb teamwork and brilliant hands-on and analytical skills.”

Tipton agrees, noting that both the team and their invention were “outstanding.” In fact, he added, “based on what I saw, if this were an actual competition, they would have either won or been among the top two finishers. BRAD was probably the only design that met all of NASA’s criteria, including weight and size.”

For Brown, completing “an end-to-end design process” was the prime benefit of undertaking this senior design project. “You begin with just a list of vague project requirements and some random ideas,” she said. “But you end with delivering a fully manufactured and functional piece of hardware that is completely unique.”

On top of that, Brown observed, “working with such an exceptional team was incredibly rewarding. We drew on the immense support of Drs. Henshaw and Tipton, and each of us brought different strengths, experiences and ideas to the table, and we were able to connect and support each other well.”

five people seated in chairs in a control room with their backs to the camera while facing a set of eight monitors showing scenes of an experiment taking place under water
NASA employee and four team members watching (via multiple camera views) BRAD in the hands of a diver

As a final step, the TU team submitted a report to NASA detailing how BRAD works and the results of all the testing. Scientists at NASA can now draw on the device’s innovative features, such as its internal mechanism that allows for independent leg actuation, as they develop their own designs for future outer space voyages of discovery.

Discover, design, invent! We eagerly await your energy and ideas in the TU Department of Mechanical Engineering.


Mechanical engineering senior projects: Design-thinking, design-doing

Every year in the Department of Mechanical Engineering there is a flurry of activity as students enrolled in the Senior Project course finalize and present their designs for new technologies and improvements on existing ones. This course gives the students design, fabrication, project management, communication and teamwork experience of a kind they will experience – and require – for success in the workplace after graduation.

“I am very proud of our senior design approach here at The University of Tulsa,” said Frank W. Murphy Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering Steven Tipton. “I attribute a lot of its success to John Henshaw, our department’s current chairperson, with whom I’ve co-taught this course for the last several decades. John and I have turned it into a program that has been copied by other departments and even other universities. This capstone design program is the top of the mountain for our students on their journeys toward becoming mechanical engineers. Failure is not an option and our students make sure that never happens!”

In addition to the experience students gain working through the design and manufacturing stages, they also develop their skills at making oral technical presentations and documenting their designs with written reports. Learning how to work as part of a team and to undergo and benefit from peer reviews are also essential course outcomes.

Senior design projects: Key elements

  • Teams of 5-6 (or more) students, with a leader for each
  • Real customers or end-users for the teams’ designs
  • Design, build and deliver real, functional hardware
  • Real dollars spent
  • Budgeting pseudo-dollars for salaries
  • Four distinct design review involving formal presentations and concrete milestones

As one student, Emily Tran, noted, “working on this senior project really provided us an opportunity to apply so much of the knowledge that we’ve gained while here at TU to a real-life engineering problem. As we explored the realms of materials, safety calculations and manufacturing (to mention just a few) we had to pull a lot from our past courses and experiences. This project also allowed us to develop our teamwork and communication skills as we learned to work as a team and reached out to professors and other professionals for assistance in our design and fabrication.”

This year, nine teams undertook an array of projects, from developing a better way to test thermomechanical fatigue to designing and manufacturing a “nano” brewing system. Here is an in-depth look at three of the innovative projects.

3D-printed aquaponics

Led by Henry Williams, the team of Muhammad Alanazi, Noah Blucher, Chris Montgomery, Danny Tapp and Sierra Thorne focused their efforts on designing small aquaponics growing beds made from 3D-printed parts for classroom teaching purposes. This project came about through a design request from Symbiotic Aquaponic, a firm in Talihina, Oklahoma.

According to Williams, the aim of 3D-printing aquaponics systems is “to develop a solution for the growing world population’s inevitable hunger issues caused by insufficient food.” The team’s design employs the waste generated by fish to fertilize plants. The water containing the fish feces is filtered and returned to the tank in a continuous loop. “It’s an all-in-one integrated system powered by a pump,” Williams explained.

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Williams and his teammates employed a design-thinking process that entails three steps:

  1. Need-finding
  2. Brainstorming
  3. Prototyping

The first step required reaching out to Symbiotic Aquaponic to determine what the client wanted. The team learned that the desired deliverable was a small-scale – 1-5 gallons – aquaponics system people could use in their own homes. Following that, brainstorming saw the team generating ideas about what the system would comprise and what features might optimize it. Finally, at the prototyping stage, Williams and his fellow students built a number of prototype systems, tested them and then landed on the one that became their solution. “This was definitely the most fun part of the project,” Williams noted.

Small group of students wearing face masks and standing in a school gymnasium
Presenting their design to students at Anderson Elementary School

The product that Williams and his colleagues designed will now enter into Symbiotic Aquaponic’s commercial lineup. This system will likely be either injection molded or made by a large 3D-printing manufacturer. Looking beyond the existing model, Williams observes that the team would like someday to be able to add a solar power component to run the pump, thereby making the invention “a sustainable integrated system.”

“TU’s mechanical engineering students have played a vital role in making aquaponics accessible to anyone with this project, and Henry and his team have greatly exceeded our hopes and dreams for this project,” said Reese Hundley, a technical professional and education specialist with Symbiotic. “The TU students have proven to be resilient and adaptable as the project needs continued to change in a particularly challenging time, which will be a key life skill for them all. These students clearly are the cream of the crop and I am excited to see the difference they will make in the future!”

Arm support for The Center

Another group of mechanical engineering students spent their time designing an orthotic arm support intended to allow people who have had a stroke and others who suffer from hemiparesis – a weakness or inability to move on one side of the body – to gain independence while participating in recreational activities at Tulsa’s Center for Individuals with Physical Challenges.

mechanical arm support made primarily of silver-colored metal and clamped to the edge of a grey table
Orthotic arm support

Emily Tran, the team’s leader, explained that “affected individuals at The Center may need assistance from instructors or therapists when participating in art, horticultural or fitness activities. The device we developed gives them support to move their arm more freely. The end goal is to give them some of their autonomy back.” Working on this project with Tran were Mohammed Alsubaie, Bryce Day, Luis Ponson, Josh Randall, Maria Lucia Trazona and Ben Truong.

The idea for this device arose from the team’s consultation with Paige McCune, transition services coordinator at The Center. McCune explained the issue her clients were facing, and then Tran and her colleagues set to work brainstorming and prototyping.

“We eventually decided on a 4-bar mechanism in combination with a lateral arm to allow for the user to move their arm both in the vertical and horizontal planes,” said Tran. “Inside of the 4-bar, we also have a spring-cable system that provides support to the device by creating a variable resistance mechanism so that the device is adjustable depending on the support needed by the specific user.” To create the support seat in which a user’s arm sits, the team turned to 3D printing, which also enabled them to create a variety of sizes to accommodate The Center’s diverse population.

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The team’s early prototypes used PVC and acrylic. Based off those promising results, Tran and her teammates continued with a more elaborate and sophisticated aluminum design, followed by a testing phase, “so we could be sure everything is functioning as safely as possible.”

Once the device was completed, the team gave it to The Center along with an instruction and safety manual and video. “We are excited for them to begin using it in their classrooms and gyms for the benefit of their members,” said Tran.

JPL-Optical instrument design

Illustration of a metal device with four arms and legs
Star tracker mounting structure

As part of a NASA competition, a team led by Nathan Rendon designed and prototyped a mounting structure for a star tracker to be flown on a satellite by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). The project’s criteria were strict loading and alignment specifications and the ability to withstand severe temperature gradients.

Joining Rendon are Eric Murcek, Andres Tovar, Hazel Upton and Mishael Ward. “Our invention solves the problem of keeping a star watcher pointed always at the same extremely precise angle when it is subjected to static and thermal loads,” Rendon explained. “That way, the star watcher can always view the stars that the observers at JPL NASA want to see.”

The team made their device out of grade-5 titanium. It is designed to be mounted onto a spacecraft to support a star watcher. “Our technology can flex, bend and otherwise move around when subjected to static loads, it just can’t break,” said Rendon. In addition, the team was concerned to ensure that their design not only held up under pressure but that it was aesthetically pleasing.

Now that they have a fully functioning model, Rendon and his colleagues intend to continue to optimize their invention. The main thrusts will be to reduce the mass further and improve its performance under each of its loading conditions.

Young man smiling with beard and glasses
Nathan Rendon

“Working on this project has both helped us to develop teamwork skills as well as gain experience with the software we need to perform simulations,” noted Rendon. Because their project was very simulation intensive and did not require the construction of physical prototypes, the team was able to collaborate virtually. Each team member was able to work from home on their own computer. But to keep in touch and ensure successful collaboration, Rendon explained, they held frequent meetings “to keep each other posted and to work together with the various simulations we needed to ensure progress.”

Even though the NASA competition only requires teams to perform sophisticated simulations to verify their design, Rendon noted that his professors also required a physical prototype to be fabricated, in this case — not unlike the aquaponics invention — using 3D printing technology.

TU’s bachelor of science in mechanical engineering offers hands-on classroom experiences and interactive research opportunities that will get you ready to compete in a global marketplace. Learn more!


Hook and NASA team up to improve airplane safety, win national award

University of Tulsa Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Loyd Hook says the country is on the verge of a technological revolution in transportation. These changes will be brought about by automation, which has started to appear in the form of autopilot systems that must be overseen by a human driver or pilot. “The next step will be automation that makes us safer by reacting to dangerous situations faster, more precise and more dependably than a human can,” Hook said. 

Auto GCAS in Air Force F-16s

pilot safety
Professor Hook with his class at the Tulsa Air National Guard Base (138th fighter wing) in front of an Auto GCAS F-16.

This is the basic idea behind the United States Air Force Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS) that Hook has worked on for the past several years with a group of researchers. This system takes control from a disoriented, or incapacitated pilot, and saves the pilot and airplane from crashing. The system already has been credited with saving the lives of 10 pilots in U.S. Air Force F-16s and is currently considered the highest level of automation in any production aircraft or automobile.  

Before coming to TU, Hook was part of a team at NASA who partnered with the U.S. Air Force, the Office of the Secretary of Defense and Lockheed Martin to build and test the F-16 Auto GCAS system. Now, Hook, a small group at NASA and the FAA, led by NASA Principal Investigator for Autonomy Mark Skoog, have been working to bring this lifesaving technology to the public. “Crashes in General Aviation, which consists of small, personal airplanes, make up the vast majority of airplane fatalities in the United States, nearly 90% over the last 20 years, Hook said. 

USGIF achievement award

NASA, the FAA, and the TU team have been working to get these systems to the public as soon as possible to save pilots’ lives. As a part of this project, Hook and Skoog were awarded the 2020 United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s (USGIF) achievement award for terrain system development and evaluation for Auto GCAS. “Auto GCAS requires precise geospatial information from around the world,” Hook explained. It is a lot of data and it must be meticulously studied in order to assure Auto GCAS works how and when it is supposed to.” In addition to this award, the Auto GCAS team, including Hook and Skoog, received the 2018 Collier Trophy, aviation’s highest honor, which was presented to the Auto GCAS team for achievements such as “expanding the technology for F-16 users and civil aviation and setting certification standards that marked aviation’s entry into the age of autonomy.” 

The future of automation

However, Auto GCAS is just one piece to an overall larger strategy. “Automation will soon lead to cars and planes that are able to take persons where they would like to go, more or less, completely automatically,” Hook said. This will allow us to work or even sleep as our vehicles take us to our destinations faster and safer than we can ourselves.” 

Hook thinks this will have far reaching impacts on the way we live, not just the way we travel, and according to Hook, TU students will have a role to play in this future. “It will open up a larger set of possibilities for us to live where we want, instead of having to live close to our work or school, he explained. “TU students, working with our team, have already made significant contributions to vehicle automation and I feel the best is still to come.”