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Release: Aug. 7, 2002

(Photo: David Andersen, professor of electrical and computer engineering)

UI Engineering class develops technology from scratch

University of Iowa College of Engineering Professor David Andersen says that he learned so much teaching his first-ever "embedded systems" design class -- where students built everything from an automatic pet food dispenser to a one-meter-accurate global positioning system (GPS) using off-the-shelf parts -- that he plans to offer it again.

"Each of the projects was built entirely from scratch by the student teams in the class. No kits of any kind were used," says Andersen, professor of electrical and computer engineering. "I didn't impose any rules on the class. I just said that they should use off-the-shelf components along with some techniques they learned in class."

Formally known as "embedded systems," the class focuses on the innovative use of miniature electronics, of the type in which the circuitry for an entire personal computer fits on a chip less than one-inch-square. In the case of the GPS device, the challenge for student Ryan Abel of Oneida, N.Y. was to create a system accurate enough to be used in automotive testing by combining two existing GPS devices -- at a hardware cost of about $200.

"My GPS system, accurate to within one meter, is better than many others that have an accuracy of plus or minus 30 meters. I needed a one-meter-accurate system for a vehicle lane-measurement project I'm involved in," says Abel, who has spent two years working for a vehicle navigation company and will be a UI engineering graduate student this fall. He adds, "There's a commercially available system accurate to about two centimeters, but it costs about $15,000!"

As far as Andersen is concerned, the only boundaries in teaching the class are the students' imaginations and his classroom resources.

"We had 44 students enrolled, and we could have had twice as many if only there had been room and more resources. I am in the process of soliciting funds from chip manufacturing companies to pay for student projects, so that in future editions of the course, the only limitation will be the students' imaginations," Andersen says.