ECE: Electrical & Computer Engineering
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Outfitting astronauts: Students tackle NASA design challenges










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Last spring, ECE students took “real world experience” to new heights with out-of-this-world projects for a high-profile client.

NASA invited interdisciplinary teams from Virginia Tech’s intelligent textiles programs to tackle design challenges faced by the agency. The students developed working prototypes and presented their concepts during a wearable technology symposium at the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Advised by ECE’s Tom Martin and Paola Zellner of the School of Architecture and Design, students completed two projects: a hands-free jetpack controller and a real-time visualization of fabric structures that unfold and inflate in space.

New material

Mark Koninckx demonstrates inflatable structure visualization project

Mark Koninckx demonstrates his inflatable structure visualization project.

Working with intelligent textiles was a new experience for some of the ECE students, including Mark Koninckx (CPE ’16). His goal was to “see if I could do a real-world project to solve a real-world problem for a real-world customer.”

Koninckx teamed up with Mahmood Alwash (EE ’13) and Chris Drudick (ARCH ’13) on the inflatable structure visualization project. “The problem is that the structures sometimes won’t inflate properly because the layers of fabric get snagged,” he explains. “It’s easy to detect and fix these problems on the ground, but in a launch situation you can’t see the structures very well.”

Koninckx and his team developed a prototype that uses a network of bend sensors to detect the shape of fabric. The sensors interface with a microcontroller that provides a real-time, 3-D output of the structure to a laptop.

“It was really cool to go from a problem statement to a working proof-of-concept,” recalls Koninckx. “It was the first time that I worked on a project where there were no clearly defined objectives. We had to figure out how to pace ourselves and set goals.”

Interdisciplinary collaboration

The experience of woking with an interdisciplinary team provided a fresh perspective, according to Koninckx. “It was interesting to work with a different department that is just as rigorous as ECE, but focused on a different expertise.”

John Murphy works on space boot

John Murphy designed and wired the circuit for a shoe insert that provides astronauts hands-free control of their jetpacks.

John Murphy (CPE ’15) had the challenge of being the only ECE student on his project team, which was tasked with building a shoe insert to provide astronauts a hands-free method of controlling their jetpacks.

Murphy handled wiring and circuit design for the foot sensor assembly, while his teammates Kate O’Connor (ARCH ’13) and Ashleigh Otto (ID) were responsible for designing the shoe and determining sensor placement. “Trying to explain things in non-engineering ways was pretty tough,” Murphy says. “I struggled at first.”

The team overcame the jargon barrier by working closely together in the same space, and teaching each other new skills—“learning how to sew was fun,” says Murphy. As the project progressed, “everyone on the team had a better grasp of what was going on.”

The shoe inset that Murphy and his teammates developed uses force sensors placed above and below the toes in the boot. The sensors detect the up and down motion of the astronaut’s toes and send signals to a microcontroller that interfaces with the jetpack controls.

Presenting to NASA

According to Murphy, the highlight of the experience was his trip to the Johnson Space Center. Joined by teams from Georgia Tech and the University of Minnesota, the Virginia Tech students toured the facility and presented their projects to NASA. “The best part was seeing our visualization of what was going on actually work when we were presenting—seeing everything come together in the end,” says Murphy.

The students made a favorable impression, and NASA invited Virginia Tech to complete another round of projects this spring. The new challenges are a noise-canceling collar that will dampen the sound of noisy space stations, an integrated sensor system for space gloves, a flexible electronic checklist display for spacesuit cuffs, and a one-handed keyboard that will be compatible with space gloves.

The teams received funding for the projects from the Virginia Space Grant Consortium and from ICAT—Virginia Tech’s Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology.