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ECE surge alters the Formula

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The Virginia Tech Formula SAE electrical team with its car

The Virginia Tech Formula SAE electrical team, from left: Brandon Vella (BSEE ‘13), Brian Cassidy (BSEE ‘13), John Thomas (BSEE ‘13), Daniel Ridenour (BSEE ‘13), Shaishav Parekh (BSCPE ‘13), Tyler Diomedi (BSEE ‘13), Taylor Yeago (BSEE ‘13), and Carolyn Doan (BSEE ‘13) (in car).

One of Virginia Tech’s oldest undergraduate engineering design teams is seeing a surge in membership, due in part to growing participation from ECE students.

Established in 1988, the VT Motorsports Formula SAE team designs and fabricates a high-performance formula-style racecar for an annual competition sponsored by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The team has historically filled its membership with mechanical engineering students, but its recent efforts to recruit from the ECE department were successful in drawing eleven ECE members to the team this fall.

Brandon Vella (BSEE ’13) joined the Formula team in 2011, serves as leader of the electrical team and plays a major role in the team’s ECE outreach. “Traditionally, the Formula program has been more ME-based and electrical has been done as an afterthought,” he says. “I wanted to build the electrical side of the team to introduce the capabilities that electronics bring to the vehicle.”

The Formula team operates on a two-year cycle, with students designing a racecar during their junior year and manufacturing and bringing the car to competition during their senior year. The team is divided into five technical subteams: engine, drivetrain, suspension, electrical, and aerodynamics.

ECE involvement grows

Last year, the senior electrical subteam had only one ECE student. This year’s Formula team has grown to include five ECE students on the senior electrical subteam and six ECE juniors. The team also counts several first-year and second-year ECE students amongst its regular volunteers, plus a number of less regular participants. Some meetings have had as many as two dozen ECEs involved.

“Recruiting is a big time commitment, but also a big payoff in the end,” Vella says. “There’s a lot of cutting-edge electrical technology to implement.”

Power distribution unit

Power distribution unit (PDU)

The addition of new members has made the electrical workload more manageable, giving the team the opportunity to implement additional capabilities beyond what is required for basic operations of their racecar. For example, the team has implemented a wireless telemetry system for the first time this year, allowing students to access vehicle diagnostics in real-time without having to stop their vehicle to download data.

The team’s expansion has brought some growing pains, Vella acknowledges. “Delegating what one person did last year to a team of five people is challenging. It takes a lot of communication and organization to be on the same page.”

Communicating with subteams brings other difficulties. “Sometimes it takes effort to get teammates from other fields to explain what they think are simple things,” says Vella. “We also have to learn to express things in a form that they’ll understand.”

Interdisciplinary effort

Overcoming these challenges to work successfully on an interdisciplinary team enables ECE students to develop skills that stand out to prospective employers, says Vella. “ECEs are able to develop an understanding of the system as a whole. It’s very impressive because it shows practical experience, attention to detailed communication, and time commitment. It’s almost like a job itself.”

As the team prepares for this year’s SAE competition, Vella is looking forward to seeing all of the pieces come together as a finished vehicle. The electrical team has a bench in ECE’s Integrated Design Studio, but the system integration is done in the Ware Laboratory. “I really enjoy seeing everything from the design on the computer to the printed circuit board, from manufacturing pieces to seeing them operate on a bench and then operate on a car. The full-design cycle is very rewarding.”

Virginia Tech’s Formula team will travel to the Michigan International Speedway this May to compete against 120 international teams in the Formula SAE collegiate competition. The team’s racecar will be tested on an autocross course as well as a 22 km endurance course, and evaluated on four major design principles: reliability, drivability, serviceability, and safety.

“Our main goal is to finish the endurance part of the competition,” says Vella. “Only a third of the teams finish each year.”

Looking ahead, the team has big plans for the 2015 Formula SAE competition. “Our goal in two years is to create an all-electric Formula vehicle,” says Vella. “Next year will mark the beginning of the two-year design cycle. The responsibilities for ECEs will be even greater.”