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Have Wi-Fi, will travel

In an emergency, first responders need to be able to communicate. But with infrastructure damaged by a disaster, the cellular and wireless networks they depend on may be damaged or destroyed, crippling the use of high-tech tools that help find victims or establish a sense of order.

Enter Dan Landers and Glen Chiacchieri, both of whom graduated from Northeastern in May with bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering. For their senior capstone project, they worked with a team to develop a rugged robot equipped with the tools to establish a wireless network and a pair of repeaters that can expand the signal even further.

“You have to be able to talk to each other,” Chiacchieri said. “You have to be able to communicate.”

The capstone team included Landers, Chiacchieri, Barry Son, Senthuran Selvanayagam, Hector Palomares, Ryan Moynihan, Mauro Berti and Imran Ahmed. Their faculty adviser was Masoud Salehi, associate professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Though most of the team was well versed in electrical engineering concepts, the project required them to step outside of their comfort zone.

“We had to learn all the mechanical engineering and all the design in less than nine months,” said Landers, who is now enrolled in the College of Engineering’s graduate program.

The robot is nicknamed Bobak in honor of mohawked NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowski, who gained Internet fame last month when the Curiosity rover landed on Mars.

Bobak is made predominately of aluminum; weighs between 150 and 200 pounds; and measures 40 inches long, 16 inches tall and 28 inches wide — narrow enough to fit through a standard door and compact enough to fit in the back of an average sedan. Equipped with a webcam, it runs on a basic netbook with a custom web interface and standard home wireless routers modified with long-range antennas.

Nearly any type of computer can control it, from smartphone to tablet to laptop. The driver directs the robot, which runs on an operating system called NodeJS, and views the robot’s environment through the webcam. If the robot loses network connectivity, it drives in reverse until it regains its connection.

Most of the robot was built at the Somerville, Mass.-based Artisan’s Asylum, a massive collaborative workspace where Landers and Chiacchieri honed their skills. With more than 40,000 square feet of warehouse space, Artisan’s Asylum is among the largest “hackerspaces” throughout the world.

“There is something like $750,000 worth of tools here, but the most valuable resource is the people,” Landers said. “No matter what you need to do, odds are there’s someone here who’s an expert at it.”

Landers and Chiacchieri have continued to improve their device and are planning to develop a second-generation robot. The second iteration of Bobak, they said, will be larger, have a greater capacity for network delivery and double as a remote power station.

In addition to developing the robot as a practical tool for the field, the student-researchers hope to use Bobak to show young people that engineering can be a fun, challenging and rewarding career choice.

They noted that middle-school students have been drawn to Bobak during test sessions and hacker events, adding that they have used the shiny, metallic robot to talk about engineering from a broader perspective. They’ve also worked with freshmen engineering students, who have visited the duo’s workspace at Artisan’s Asylum to get exposure to the “hacker” and “maker” elements of engineering the space celebrates.

“There’s always more we can do with this,” Landers said. “And we’re excited to see where we go next.”