MSR Course Spotlight: Advanced Mechatronics

Senior Lecturer Nick Marchuk provides a behind-the-scenes look at the popular elective course

The final project in Advanced Mechatronics is the Tech Cup, which is a line-following competition.The final project in Advanced Mechatronics is the Tech Cup, which is a line-following competition.

By Nick Marchuk

Advanced Mechatronics is a course in electromechanical design and prototyping. Students build circuits and robots from scratch, using low level electrical components, laser cutting and 3D printing mechanical parts. They also write all of the code to read the sensors and control the actuators.

After taking the class, students are well prepared to take on any electromechanical project.

Advanced Mechatronics (ME433) is my favorite class to teach because of the fast pace and the emphasis on prototyping. The course picks up right where the Introduction to Mechatronics (ME333) course leaves off. Instead of using a manufactured development kit, we design and build our own circuit board, and each student orders their own custom printed circuit board design.

We go through some of the more advanced peripherals on the Microchip PIC32 microcontroller. Introduction to Mechatronics teaches the technique for reading the Microchip documentation, and we use those skills in Advanced Mechatronics to quickly get new and interesting components working with the PIC32.

The course is designed to use take-home kits and portable tools like nScope, which, as the company advertises, turns your laptop into an workbench. What this design does is make us less reliant on lab space and expensive equipment. Most importantly, it gives the students the confidence that they can do all of the engineering on their own. They don't need to be in a fully equipped lab and they don't need me looking over their shoulder. We can build cool, complicated projects with relatively inexpensive tools and have them look and perform at a professional level. I like to think it gives the students permission to explore more, and take ownership of their work.

The highlight of the course is the final project, which I call the Tech Cup. The project is a line following competition that has an equal emphasis on electronics, mechanics, and coding, and it also allows students to explore any of the topics at a deeper level.

Every year I make the line following competition a little harder. The first year, we followed a black line on a white background. The second year was a brown line on a green background. The third year featured a full-color map with an image of a street to follow. Each map is inspired by a level from Mario Kart. This year, we will be going even more difficult with a Rainbow Rad inspired map that includes a ramp and overpass.

Making it a little harder every year inspires me to learn a little more, and it really pushes the students to unleash their engineering and creative potential.

Nick Marchuk is a senior lecturer in mechanical engineering.