Monthly Archives: November 2018

Autonomous trucks follow pre-programmed directions during a demonstration at Caterpillar’s Mining Technology Demonstration & Program.

Eighteen engineering students from the University of Arizona attended this year’s demonstration.

Nearly 75 miners attended Caterpillar’s Mining Technology Demonstration & Program this fall, where they got an inside look into the future of the mining industry. Eighteen engineering students from the University of Arizona, many of whom represent the future of mining themselves, were among them.

At the two-day event at Caterpillar’s Tinaja Hills Demonstration & Learning Center in Green Valley, Arizona, the company showcased the capabilities of their MineStar suite of hardware, software and services. For example, after a hydraulic shovel loaded up an autonomous Cat 793F truck with dirt, the pre-programmed vehicle traveled to a dump site, stopped in the right place, and spent the correct amount of time with the truck bed raised to dump out all the material before driving away.

The truck also showed off its safety features — including a 64-laser lidar system that gathers millions of data points a second — when it came to a complete stop to avoid hitting a light vehicle and a mannequin placed in its path. One guest had the chance to use the “A-stop” or “all-stop” device: a controller carried by on-site personnel that can stop all trucks within 984 feet with the push of a button.

Caterpillar has a long-standing relationship with the University of Arizona, including a rewarding partnership with the Engineering Design Program. The company and the UA also join forces on Mining 360, a certificate degree program for mining professionals, which just celebrated the graduation of its second cohort.

Caterpillar’s autonomous vehicles on display.

Project Title: Mounted-Gemstone Weight Calculating Device

Team 18002 Members:
Ludovico Borghi, electrical and computer engineering and optical sciences and engineering
Emily Elizabeth Calara English, biosystems engineering
Matthew Heger, electrical and computer engineering
Meghan Elizabeth Ryterski, mechanical engineering
Chengyu Zhu, materials science and engineering

Sponsor: The RealReal

An Invaluable Method for Accurate Gem Measurement 

Reselling pieces of jewelry involves measuring the gemstones mounted in them to determine their worth, a process currently done by hand with tools like calipers and millimeter gauges. This means the measurement of a jewel can vary from one business to the next, depending on the skill of the person doing the assessment.

When it comes to valuable gems like diamonds, even very small differences in measurement can lead to huge differences in appraised value. The RealReal — the largest retailer of luxury consignment goods, including jewelry, in the United States — is partnering with the Engineering Design Program and asking students to build a mounted-gemstone weight calculating device to minimize the potential for inconsistent appraisal.

“It’s something that had never been done before in our industry: creating an instrument to identify the carat weight of gemstones in a mounted piece of jewelry without unmounting it,” said Loretta Castoro, master gemologist at The RealReal and the team’s industry mentor.

“We come across pieces every day that are brought to us, and when we measure them and calculate their weight, it will be totally different from the appraisal.”

Step Aside, Ocean’s 8, for Desert’s 5

The RealReal project team.

The students plan for the new device to take photos of the mounted gemstone from multiple angles and use the photos to create a 3D image of the entire gem, including the parts covered by mounting. A simple software interface will allow users to select the gem type — for example, ruby or diamond — and the software will calculate the stone’s carat weight according to its density.

Team lead Meghan Ryterski said she was drawn to the project because it was an opportunity to learn how to use new technology — and it sounded cool and heist-y to her.

“I don’t know if you saw ‘Ocean’s 8,’ but we’re basically doing exactly what they did in the movie for our project,” she said, smiling.

Mentor Brings RealReal to Program, Makes X-ray Problems Transparent

The initial project proposal suggested the students use lidar technology to create the system, but the team is exploring other options as well.

While their college mentor, Bob Messenger, provides priceless expertise in mechanical engineering and project management, geosciences professor Bob Downs has been another invaluable resource. For example, when the team briefly considered using X-ray to measure the gems, he had the gemology knowledge to let them know why it wouldn’t work: X-ray could change the color of the stones.

Downs first met some of The Real Real’s representatives at the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show, one of the gem industry’s biggest events, and was impressed by their mission.

“There are incredible problems that this company wants to solve that are extremely academically oriented,” he said. “The community’s problems are exactly the same as ours in academia.”

The RealReal is endowing a professorship in the Department of Geosciences, but they also wanted to get involved more directly with students. Downs, who has two sons in the College of Engineering, suggested the Engineering Design Program. It’s been a huge success so far.

“I love the team,” Castoro said. “They’re absolutely amazing. It’s been a pleasure to work with the university and the students.”

Project Title: Grasshopper Harvester

Team 18025 Members:
Savannah Marie Brown, biosystems engineering
Weicheng Li, mechanical engineering
Devin Patrick Murphy, biomedical engineering
Sean Rowlands, mechanical engineering
Hannah Grace Whetzel, mechanical engineering
Cooper Austin Wynn, electrical and computer engineering

Sponsor: UA Department of Entomology

Project Title: Robotic Weeding Machine for Leaf Lettuce CropsUA Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering logo

Team 18029 Members:
Mark Jendrisak, biosystems engineering and mechanical engineering
Eunmo Kang, optical sciences and engineering
Connor John McCoy, biosystems engineering
Jesus Rene Nevarez, electrical and computer engineering
Tristan Stevens, biosystems engineering
Damian Willer, mechanical engineering

Sponsor: UA Department of Biosystems Engineering

Two UA faculty members are sponsoring senior design projects that lie at the intersection of engineering expertise and agricultural applications.

From left to right: Savannah Brown, Cooper Wynn, Weicheng Li, Sean Rowlands and Devin Murphy stand around their design for a grasshopper harvester, which they created with the help of fellow Engineering Design Program student Hannah Whetzel and professor Goggy Davidowitz.

Grab That Grasshopper!

Goggy Davidowitz, professor of entomology at the University of Arizona, has a vested interest in grasshoppers. In the long term, he’d like to convince ranchers to raise grasshoppers instead of cows, and to see the insects — which are 12 times more efficient at converting grass to energy than cows — become a common source of protein for humans.

For the time being, however, farmers regard grasshoppers simply as pests that eat their crops. Davidowitz views harvesting the grasshoppers as a win because it eliminates the need for farmers to use unhealthy insecticides. His engineering design team is creating a machine that can capture grasshoppers in an agricultural field.

“Different species of grasshoppers jump differently,” Davidowitz said. “That means that from day to day, how high and far they jump will vary. How do you address that from an engineering perspective?”

He turned to the Engineering Design Program, hoping his team could use their talents to come up with a creative solution. So far, he’s taken the students to a local farmer’s grasshopper-infested field to test out some preliminary designs, given them a primer on grasshopper biology, and been altogether impressed with their enthusiasm and work ethic.

“I’m absolutely coming back to the program next year — that is a given,” he said. “On top of that, I have two other projects that I’m going to try to convince students to join.”

Weed Whacking, Not Lettuce Whacking

In the vegetable industry, workers remove the weeds around lettuce leaves, or spray them with herbicides, by hand. However, the lettuce industry is currently facing a shortage of workers, and hand labor in Arizona and California — where most of the country’s lettuce is grown — can be expensive.

Mark Siemens, associate professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, is asking an engineering design team to build a robotic weeding machine for leaf lettuce crops. The machine will include a camera and a software system that allows farmers to monitor the device remotely.

“The students are going to develop a user interface with a touch screen and a camera, so you’ll get an image of a tray of weeds and crop plants, and you can select the weeds by hand. Then the machine will target the locations you select,” he said.

Eventually, Siemens would like to develop a version of this device that uses artificial intelligence to identify and kill weeds, but this group of students is focusing on the weed-killing aspect of the project, which is no small task.

“The challenge here is not only to not injure the crop plant and control the weeds, but to do so at a work rate that’s commercially viable,” Siemens said.

He jokes that he gave his students “pretty much an impossible problem” because researchers have been working on the question of how to kill weeds without harming plants for decades.

“I haven’t been able to crack the puzzle, so part of my motivation for doing a senior design project was to get some fresh thoughts on how to build such a machine,” he said. “The senior design program is an excellent opportunity for someone with a limited budget to make some progress on a project of interest.”

A group of six students, four men in the back row, two women in the front row, posing for a group shot
A group of six students, four men in the back row, two women in the front row, posing for a group shot

The Bayer U.S. Team. Front row, left to right: Veronica Paz, Syntia Bebongchu. Second row, left to right): Hernani Fernandes, Troy Petty, Eric Romero, Joshua Vanderwall.

Engineering Design Program newcomers explain what inspired their partnerships.

Organizations that collaborate with the University of Arizona Engineering Design Program consistently report that the program offers them an opportunity to explore projects they might not otherwise be able to pursue, and to dive into the rich talent pool at the UA College of Engineering. This year, several new companies will reap the program’s benefits.

Elbit Systems

The Elbit Systems team. From left to right: Scott Zigray, Danelle Villanueva, Carson Lempa, Keith Durkin, Aaron Silvers.

Elbit Systems creates technologies for defense and commercial industries. This year, they’re asking their team of UA engineers to create an eye-safe short-wave infrared illuminator — essentially a flashlight that operates on short- and mid-wave infrared, rather than the longer wavelengths most infrared flashlights operate on.

“Those [long-wave infrared beams] are easily detectable, and can give away the position of the person who’s using it,” said Matthias Whitney, a principal electro-optics engineer at Elbit and the industry mentor for the project. “A lot of newer infrared goggles operate in the short-wave infrared band, so by having illuminations in this wavelength, the flashlight user wearing infrared goggles can see the beam without someone else detecting it.”

Matthias and his wife, Megan Whitney, both graduated from the University of Arizona in 2009, she in mechanical engineering and he in optical sciences. He’s made frequent visits back to the UA as a recruiter, but he encouraged his company to increase its involvement by sponsoring a project.

“If we wish to remain competitive, we need to continually be attracting new talent — such talent as is found at University of Arizona,” Matthias said.


Lisa Jones, an engineering site lead at Bayer U.S., is a UA alumna and a former employee of Roche — a longtime partner with the Engineering Design Program. When she started her job at Bayer, one of her priorities was to set the company up with a senior design team.

So, the corporation has tasked a team of engineers with creating a SMART – self-monitoring analytics and reporting technology — watering system to distribute the exact right amount of water to each individual plant in a greenhouse.

Greenhouse plant watering is labor-intensive and often inconsistent, and while some automated watering systems already exist, this one will be uniquely interactive and cloud-based. Humans can monitor the system remotely from a cellphone and track how much water crops receive and any problems the system encounters.

“This is one of the pie-in-the-sky things we have not been able to have in our greenhouse,” Jones said. “We decided to let the students have a go at it, to see what they could come up with.”


TuSimple, a company developing autonomous commercial truck technology, is asking a student team to create an integrated image processing unit for automotive cameras.

Most autonomous or semi-autonomous vehicles today have several cameras that send their video frames to one central computing system, which then processes the images and keeps track of objects around the vehicle. But this powerful central processor is expensive and can cause a single point of failure for all the cameras. Building the processing function into the cameras could mitigate these problems.

TuSimple has worked with the College of Engineering already, collaborating with interim Dean Larry Head, director of the Transportation Research Institute.

“We just enjoy the University of Arizona relationship,” said Robert Brown, director of public affairs at TuSimple. “We have our solution, but we’re curious to see if students will think of something outside the box.”


Jot Powers and Greg Vannoni, the industry mentors for PayPal, are both UA alumni. Powers earned a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering in 1993 and Vannoni completed the same in 2006. PayPal is sponsoring a “one-click food bank” project: essentially a software system that will allow food banks to manage inventory, track donations and coordinate volunteer efforts.

The idea for their project came from PayPal’s Opportunity Hack, a weekendlong program that connects nonprofits with students and industry professionals who work together to solve nonprofit tech problems. The concept of creating a system to help food banks run more smoothly has come up often in recent years.

Powers and Vannoni both thought the seniors at their alma mater could deliver, especially after volunteering as judges at Engineering Design Day 2018 and seeing the range of projects.

“We came here because we both have a bias toward engineering, and because we think a solution from a passionate team can help the community,” Powers said.

UA alumnus Steve Larimore graduated with his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1983, then earned his Master of Business Administration from the Eller College of Management in 1989.

Larimore retired from Raytheon after a 32-year career, serving as a mechanical engineering design department manager for Raytheon’s Precision Control Mechanisms and Harness/Interconnect, Missile Defense Systems, and Air and Land Warfare Systems.

He has been a mentor for the Engineering Design Program for two years, and was a sponsor for 13 years.

What inspired you to become a mentor in the first place?

I have a passion for solving engineering problems and helping young people to be successful. Being a mentor allows me to do both.

How have you benefited from the experience of being a mentor?

I have had several mentors throughout my life, and they have all helped me increase my knowledge. Probably the most important mentors in my life are my parents. My father is an engineer and my mother is a school teacher, so it is not surprising that today I am helping educate engineers.

How does being on a mentored design team help students in the professional world?

Mentors in the Engineering Design Program help the students use their knowledge to solve real-world problems. The mentors teach the students an engineering process that can be used on any engineering design problem. It is the process used in the professional world, so when the students enter the workforce, they will be familiar with the approach.

What’s your favorite team or project you have mentored, and why?

This is a hard question. I have enjoyed most of the projects I have mentored. I guess the ones that have been the most meaningful to me have been the ones that affect human health. I enjoyed mentoring the team that created the active elbow orthosis and the team that created the precision diagnostic reagent package. The active elbow orthosis helps people recover from elbow surgery and the precision diagnostic reagent package helps doctors diagnose cancer more quickly.

Describe an aha! moment you experienced while mentoring a design team.

The students, for the most part, are unaware of the real-world requirements. They don’t understand or consider that there are lead times for almost anything that you buy or have made. They do not appreciate that there are standard parts that, if you don’t make use of and instead make a unique one, your cost and lead time both increase.

The mentors help the students with their project schedules, making sure they have considered lead times and helping the students understand that it is imperative they use standard parts as often as possible.

What advice would you offer to others considering mentoring a design team?

You must have a passion for helping students succeed and be willing to put in lots of hours. The hours won’t be a problem if you have the passion.

How do employers benefit when they hire students who have been on a mentored senior design team?

The students are trained in a universal design approach that allows them to quickly adapt the employers’ design approaches. They have real-life design experience and they know how to work as part of a team, define requirements, create a schedule, meet deadlines, assess risks and implement contingency plans.

The Engineering Design Program does a wonderful job of preparing students for the work environment. As a former employer, I could see the difference between new hires that had been through a program like this one and those who had not. The new hires that had been through a program like the Engineering Design Program adapted and began contributing more quickly than the others.

Tell us something about yourself that people might be surprised to learn.

In 1982, I was a junior in mechanical engineering at the University of Arizona. At that time, there was no interdisciplinary engineering capstone class. Each department had its own.

Each year, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers sponsored a design competition that all the students in the mechanical engineering capstone class participated in. The winner and the first runner-up had the opportunity to represent the University of Arizona at a regional ASME competition, and the local ASME group paid the travel expenses.

The 1982 regional ASME competition was held in Hawaii. ASME did not have any rules that prohibited a junior from entering the competition, though traditionally only seniors entered, so I entered. I believe I am the only University of Arizona junior who ever won this competition.

What else would you like us to know?

I am a Wildcat for life. Both my parents and all four of my children and their spouses are alumni of the University of Arizona. We love the university.