Students studying with Mechanical Engineering Associate Professor Christopher Kitts send their work to the far extremes of the planet: the depths of the seas and out into orbit. Professor Kitts runs a research station at Santa Clara that designs and builds robots. With the help of undergraduate and graduate students, the lab has helped clean up space by de-orbiting outdated satellites, mapped the terrain at the bottom of Lake Tahoe, and built self-monitoring engines for sportscars.
Professor Kitts stresses that what distinguishes Santa Clara University from other schools is that here the work is never simply theoretical: “Almost everything we do is geared toward a real robotics system with a real application in the real world,” he says.
The chance to build cool stuff in Santa Clara University’s robotics lab is what drew senior Casey Kute from Louisville, Kentucky, to Santa Clara. “I love hands-on work,” she says. “Actually building something helps learning so much.”
A mechanical engineering major, Casey is building a modular rescue robot with a team of fellow engineers for her senior design project. The machine “looks like a tank,” explains Casey, because it was adapted from a robot built for a previous project. But the team has repurposed it to create a search-and-rescue machine that can be used to locate people or hazards in a disaster scene.
“I was inspired after 9/11,” says Casey. The robot can climb stairs, carry supplies, identify different toxins, and find a victim at a disaster site. It‘s adaptable to many different situations and environments, with cameras and rescue equipment that can be added or removed depending on need. “It’s pretty awesome,” she says.
With a team at Johns Hopkins University, Carol Reiley ’05 builds optic computers that evaluate surgical technique in the operating room. Carol will earn her Ph.D. in 2010, specializing in surgical robotics at the Johns Hopkins’ Computational Interaction and Robotics Lab. Carol brings expertise in a range of fields—computers, robotics, and engineering—to research that will help medical students learn intricate and precise procedures.
It was Carol’s experience as an undergraduate mechanical engineering major at Santa Clara that led her to this specialty, particularly research in the robotics lab with Associate Professor Christopher Kitts. “Professor Kitts showed me this really interesting field, haptics—the sense of touch for robots,” she says. As a senior, Carol built a remote-operated robotic arm that gave the operator force feedback. She and her team created an arm that could allow users to tell the difference between the tactile force needed to pick up a rock and that needed to pick up an egg.
Carol says studying engineering at Santa Clara was ideal, because of the location. “Silicon Valley is right where everything is happening.”
She hopes to return to the area after earning her doctorate, and to pursue teaching. “Because of Professor Kitts, I understand what a good teacher is. Professors at Santa Clara care about their students; they changed my life. I want to give back.”