On Friday, April 23, the 20th annual Senior Design Project Day at the University of Massachusetts Amherst will unveil 13 clever, creative, and useful electronic inventions produced by seniors from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department (ECE). The event is a high-tech show for electronic wizardry. Last year’s design day, for example, included inventions designed to help find and rescue firefighters in distress, to allow teleconferencing between ambulances and emergency room doctors, and to enable cars to communicate automatically with each other and avoid collisions. Go to design day website: http://www.ecs.umass.edu/ece/sdp/sdp10/.

The public review of these 13 projects happens at the Gunness Engineering Student Center in Marcus Hall from 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. Students will display their devices, demonstrate the functions, and answer questions from visitors on an individual basis.

The Senior Design Project provides a capstone experience for undergraduate students in the ECE department. Students work in teams of four during a year-long course to design and prototype systems of their own conception. Each team is advised by a faculty member in the department, and projects undergo several formal reviews. The learning goals for the senior design project include technical design, an understanding of realistic constraints, ethics, and much more.

“The Senior Design Project is not only the culminating project in the ECE curriculum,” says T. Baird Soules, the department’s undergraduate program director, “but it is also where students broaden their skill base by making presentations, working in teams, and staying within their budgets.”

Inventions don’t get much more significant than the electronic system developed last year by ECE students for “Rescuing Firefighters in Distress.” Many firefighters today perish while in the line of duty as a result of becoming trapped or lost inside burning buildings. Without knowledge of a building’s design or a clear idea of which path they took in the building, firefighters often become overcome by either fire or smoke. A system in which the incident commander can track and monitor each firefighter’s path throughout a building will allow for assisted guidance or recovery of an injured firefighter.

Another potential life-saver from last year was the “Medical Emergency Communication Assistant,” or MECA, an emergency ambulance communication system. The goal of MECA was to integrate various hardware and open-source software components into an inexpensive and highly usable device to provide emergency-room-to-ambulance teleconferencing, thus allowing doctors to see and hear the emergency personnel and patients in real time and provide assistance.

Another promising safety device was a “Car-to-Car Communication for Accident Avoidance” system. Cars on the road are in constant threat of collision with one another. Visual obstructions and inattention to the road by drivers are significant reasons for these accidents. Vehicular ad-hoc networks give drivers another way to assess driving situations and also warn drivers of likely accidents. A car-to-car communication interface allows vehicles to communicate directly with each other and process this sort of information.

Inventions such as these serve as capstone projects for seniors in ECE. “The design project is as close as we can get to duplicating what these students will be doing in their professional lives,” says ECE Department Head Christopher Hollot. (April 2010)