The Coronavirus and the Capstone

On March 16, 2020, the County of Santa Cruz issued a mandatory shelter-in-place order. At the UC Santa Cruz Baskin School of Engineering, the lockdown gave engineering students racing to finish their senior capstone projects yet another challenge. 

Senior capstone projects are ambitious, student-led efforts to tackle a problem or create a product or service. Some are sponsored by campus organizations or corporations, others are entirely conceived and executed by students. They intended to be the crowning achievement of an engineering education at UCSC.

Projects revolve around teamwork, and teamwork means contact. During the pandemic students were forced to find ways of cooperating without spreading the deadly virus. 

The Coronanaut (Continental Automotive Indoor Robotics)

One of the most ambitious projects in 2020 was the Continental-sponsored Indoor Robotics team. Their goal was to fuse Continental’s LiDAR, radar and camera sensor information together into a single coherent “view.”

In other words, they were giving a robot a new way of seeing the world and recognizing objects around it. The team drew up plans to attach complex sensors to a robot that was approximately the size of a wheelchair (an unmanned ground vehicle robot called a Husky UGV). 

Continental sent over a robot and sensors. Team members Babak Farahmand, Daniel Luft-Martinez, Mayowa Borisade, Paige Riola, Shealtiel Mulder, and Walter Condori would have to mount the sensors to the robot and interpret the data they collected.

Before coronavirus struck, there had already been a series of near-catastrophic delays. First, legal complications and labor action kept the Husky trapped on campus. Then the shelter-in-place order kept students out of the labs, so they couldn’t access the robot or the tools they needed to measure its sensor data. 

Prospects for the team looked grim until Senior Design Capstone Director Patrick Mantey proposed a solution. 

Mantey suggested they enlist electrical engineering Masters student Veronica Hovanessian as a “coronanaut.” 

“We could send her into the lab,” Mantey said. “As if she were an astronaut on a spacewalk receiving instructions from the rest of the team over her headset.”

Hovanessian works with the Baskin Engineering Lab Support (BELS), which meant she was one of the few people who had permission to be on campus during shelter-in-place. She was surprised to be summoned to a meeting between Mantey and Dean Alexander Wolf, who approved the plan.

Integrating the sensors was nerve wracking work. Hovanessian was careful to use a meter before connecting the expensive sensors. 

“Accidentally reversing polarity could cause a sensor’s functionality to stop,” Hovanessian said. “Or even explode.”

Once the sensors were attached to the robot and connected, Hovanessian began receiving transmissions from her distant teammates. They wanted her to tell them what the robot was ‘seeing’ through its sensors.

“Typically they would ask me something like “get us some data of what a chair looks like in front of the LiDAR sensor,” Hovanessian said. 

The data she gathered was parsed by the rest of the team, who extrapolated conclusions and created models from what she gathered. 

Hovanessian says she was excited to be able to help the team succeed despite the pandemic. Most of her teammates are graduating this quarter, which means there’s a good chance she might never meet them in person.

Hovanessian did catch a glimpse of one, once, when he dropped a package off for her filled with equipment. He scurried off before they could say anything to one another. 

“I hope when this is all over we can grab a beer or something to celebrate pulling this off!” Hovanessian said.

The Potential Startup (Smart Seat for Posture Detection)

The Smart Seat for Posture Detection team have created what they call a ‘smart seat.’ 

“It’s a chair attachment that sends an alert if you’re slouching,” team member Ali Fallahi said. 

Creating a smart seat requires a great deal of engineering. There are proximity sensors and leaning sensors to wire, not to mention the challenge of creating an attractive, comfortable piece of furniture that someone would consider sitting on every working day.

The coronavirus outbreak scrambled their plans.

“Testing was the most challenging aspect for us,” Fallahi said. “We needed testbed setups, oscilloscopes, and network analyzers to test the electrical system. During an outbreak that becomes really difficult.”

Their solution was to recreate the UC Santa Cruz labs at home. The school let them borrow a few vital pieces of equipment home and provided MATLab credits, but the team realized they needed more than one team member running tests and bought tools so that each member could work independently. 

“Costs tripled,” Cheney said. “Initially we drafted it up around $200, now we’re looking at more like five or six hundred.”

Progress was slow without the lab and assembly became a much more deliberate, meticulous process. They worked on perfecting their algorithms. 

“Software-wise, our end result will probably be better than we originally planned,” Haughton said.”Our prototype won’t be as super nice and presentable as we wanted to be but at its core it will work really nicely.” 

A second major challenge for the group was communication. “When you don’t have in-person contact problem solving together takes much longer,” Haughton said. “You can’t just start drawing stuff on the whiteboard. But it certainly wasn’t an insurmountable challenge.”

The team thanks Professors Stephen Peterson and Tela Favaloro for their help with the project. 

They’re hoping their research into posture correction could be the start of a business or partnership with an existing company. For the most part they managed to hit their goals.

“When we look back at all of this, I think we’ll all be incredibly proud of what we managed to achieve,” Fallahi said.

The Homeless Charging Station 

Homelessness is a major problem in Santa Cruz. 

“There are about 2,200 homeless in the county,” said team member Jordan Tam. “We wanted to alleviate some of the stress they feel.” 

The team began surveying homeless adults. One of the problems they discovered was that the homeless had very few places to charge their phones. 

“Many of them would go into libraries or businesses to look for outlets,” Tam said, “Even in these areas outlets were few and far-between.”

Homeless populations use cellphones to trade information about resources, which means having a fully-charged phone can mean the difference between a hot meal and going to bed hungry.  The team partnered with the Homeless Gardens Project—a respected local organization that helps the homeless reintegrate into the community, giving them a job in the gardens and helping them find housing. 

“We realized that the Homeless Garden was completely off-grid,” Tam said. “We decided it would be an excellent area to provide power to. So our original plan was to build them a solar-powered charging station.”

The original design was a solar-powered charging station with six locking compartments so individuals could safely leave their phones to charge while they worked. Their first design was intended to be theft and weather resistant. They designed a structure made out of 316 stainless steel and dense, robust polycarbonate plastic.

Things were looking up. Sandbar Solar donated a large solar panel to the project. The team completed their designs and set aside the final quarter for fabrication, assembly and integration. 

Then the coronavirus struck. 

“Sandbar Solar wasn’t considered an essential service,” Tam said, “so they weren’t open, and neither were the plastic and metal shops. Fabrication was pushed way back.”

Fabrication ground to a halt. Then most of the team had to go home. Tam was based out of Danville, and two others remained in Santa Cruz but one went home to India, which meant the team also to adapt to the time difference.

Other problems arose. Since they couldn’t outsource fabrication, they focused on the designs, preparing the project for the next senior capstone team to take on. They simulated as much as possible, but simulation can only do so much. They weren’t able to test the weather proofing and theft-resistance nor were they able to properly debug circuit boards. (The ideal conditions of a simulation rarely measure up to the real world when it comes to circuit boards.)

Despite the issues with fabrication, the team created a functional prototype. 

“We created a prototype out of medium density fiberboard,” Tam said, “which is a pretty flimsy material, but the Homeless Garden Project asked for anything we could give them.”

The Homeless Garden Project plans to place the charger in a weatherproof shed. The team also added a smaller solar panel and a battery, which would allow the machine to work during  cloudy days.

Tam said it was hard having to scale back their plans. 

“We were really sad because we wanted to see a finished end product and to create something that would really help the Homeless Garden project,” He said. “I’m glad we’re giving them something but it’s a huge step down from what we’d envisioned.”

All three groups talked about how rising to the challenge of working together during the COVID-19 outbreak felt like it would eventually help them become better engineers. It was a sentiment shared by most of the Senior Design Project teams this year. Check out more of the amazing work at