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Collision avoidance, by land and sea

Students in the College of Engineering describe their research project and senior capstone, "The Aware-Chair," at RISE:2017. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Two undergraduate research projects being presented at RISE:2017 both feature sensing technology to detect and potentially avoid nearby objects—but these projects’ applications are quite different.

One team of five students in the College of Engineering students designed their senior capstone project for an 18-year-old with cerebral palsy, who has difficulty not only controlling his wheelchair but also perceiving distance between him and objects. This challenge, the students said, is particularly difficult as he navigates the hallways of his high school. “So we tried to design a system to help with that,” says Kyle Jones, E’17.

The students dubbed their project “The Aware-Chair.” They have outfitted a donated wheelchair with an elaborate sensor system that can detect when objects are within inches on the front and sides and that stops the wheelchair to avoid collisions. They also equipped the wheelchair with an LED board that is lit green when there are no objects nearby, yellow when something in its path is close, and red when it needs to stop.

After RISE, in fact, they were scheduled to meet with the teenager to discuss their progress.

Another RISE project grew out of professor Joseph Ayers’ lab, where researchers are developing autonomous robotic lobsters that mimic the animals’ behavior and are designed to locate underwater mines. Jaimie Spahr, S’17, has worked in Ayers’ lab for the past two semesters; her research, which serves as her Honors thesis, focuses on developing an antenna for the robotic lobsters. “The antenna will help the robot investigate the environment and determine if there are objects in its surroundings, and if it can interact with or must avoid certain things,” she says.

Spahr is a behavioral neuroscience major, and says through this project she’s immersed herself in engineering concepts that are entirely new to her—for example, designing a circuit to work with the antenna. Bolstering her skill set, she says, has been very rewarding.

“The engineering skills I was lacking, but I now have a basic understanding of electrical engineering design,” she says.