Monday, September 2, 2013

Mechatronics: from minivans that predict crashes to unmanned battlefield rovers

Remember the Subaru ad about how its cars "transfer power from the wheels that slip to the wheels that grip"?  Behind and beyond that jingle is an emerging field of engineering described by technical terms like mechatronics and agile vehicle dynamics.

Foxhound Vehicle. Courtesy UK Ministry of Defense.
The field seeks to design intelligent vehicles that adjust power distribution to the wheels, suspension stiffness and traction control with extreme speed in the face of changing road conditions. When perfected, such "agile" vehicles will make proactive decisions to avert crashes as the wheels begin to spin.

Systems that transfer power to the gripping wheels are also a must for vehicles meant to operate on loose soil for farming, construction, emergencies or military operations. Agile, unmanned vehicles, for instance, will soon negotiate the chaotic terrain of battlefields and disaster zones, making their own decisions while climbing out of ravines or driving over downed power poles.

We thought to talk with Vladimir Vantsevich, Ph.D., a specialist in vehicle design, as he gets set to host the UAB “agile vehicle” symposium Sept. 8-11, 2013, at the Hilton Birmingham Perimeter Park Hotel. The event will be the first to assemble experts in the specialty from around the world, and it will explore ground vehicle dynamics, energy efficiency and performance in severe environments.

Show notes for the podcast: 

1:17 Dr. Vantsevich earned his Ph.D. and Sc.D., the highest degree in the former U.S.S.R., from Belarusian National Technical University. Belarus is an independent country and home to several automotive design companies. In 1997, he received an assignment to work the deputy permanent representative from Belarus to as for the United Nations, where for the years he worked on issues related to the protection of intellectual property rights as part of the U.N. Commission on Science and Technology. After three and a half years there, he took a facutly position at Lawrence Technical University in Michigan, where he built automotive engineering programs for 11 years, before coming to UAB a year ago.

2:10  Dr. Vantsevich is a pioneer in the design of systems that distribute power between the wheels. What may seem like a technical detail has everything to with the ability of a passenger car to achieve traction on a wet road, not to mention its fuel efficiency

3:33 Dr. Vantsevich holds 30 certified inventions and is well known in the American Society of Mechanical Engineering, with most of his innovations concerned with slip differentials. A differential is a set of gears that enable wheels to rotate at different speeds as the engine applies power to them and as road conditions vary. When a car turns for instance, the wheel travelling around the outside of the turn must roll farther and faster than its counterpart on the inside. A limited slip differential is a gear arrangement that, in an off-road environment, senses when one wheel if off of the ground or has hit a patch of ice and transfers power to the wheels still in contact with the ground.

6:30 Alabama's reputation is growing internationally as a center for automotive engineering, and now is a great time to gather leaders in Birmingham to decide on next steps for the field. The symposium promises to have a positive impact on UAB and local automotive companies as well, potentially helping them to recruit talent to the area, Dr. Vantsevich said.

8:58 The symposium also focuses on dynamics, the study of what happens when you apply forces to a moving body, say a vehicle. What happens to a car when you combine the forces transmitted by the engine to the wheels with those applied by the wheels to the ground combined with a strong side wind?

12:14 Many ads about luxury cars talk about the "active safety features" available in new cars today.  Your car might issue a warning if you attempt to change lanes into space already occupied by another car.  It might tell you if you're about to back out of parking space into an oncoming car. Despite these wonders, there is still tremendous potential to improve these systems, Dr. Vantsevich said. To realize their potential will require researchers to develop theoretical and analytic foundations, the agile dynamic underpinnings of future systems. The symposium in Birmingham will launch some of those efforts.

14:48 There also may be value in creating unmanned vehicles that are autonomous, with no need for remote control as they go about their mission and stream intel back to headquarters. Such "ground drones" may save many soldiers lives, but only if they are capable of negotiating extreme terrain. If their mission requires them travel long distances, such vehicles must also be fuel efficient, and especially in the case of autonomous rovers deployed to the surface of Mars.

16:52  Furthermore, such unmanned vehicles would often have a "mission-related payload," like a robotic arm on top. Experts in mechatronics would have to consider how the weight and motion of the arm changed the agile vehicle dynamics and a rover drove up a steep slope.

18:54 While cars started out as mechanical systems, like wind up clocks based gears and mechanisms but no electricity, they have become something else, said Dr. Vantsevich. Cars today might have five computers, which is more than the space shuttle had. The interplay between mechanical, computer and electrical systems of any device, from a smart phone to a car, is the province of mechatronics. It's not just a combination of separate mechanical, electronic and computer systems, but an approach where different sets of physics become one.

23:55 In recent years, car designers have added many electronic devices to cars in seeking to improve their performance and fuel efficiency. An unintended result is that today's car has two kilometers of wires running though it that together weigh 30 kilograms. That weight that costs the car in fuel efficiency and handling, and mechatronics-minded engineers are seeking to reduce that burden.

28:02 Dr. Vantsevich seeks to develop a world class program in mechatronics at UAB, which will include courses at the bachelor's, master's and Ph.D. level. Newly offered courses include "introduction to mechatronics, design of robots and design of hybrid vehicles, the latter in partnership with The Southern Company. As electricity producers, power companies like The Southern Company have taken an interest in charging stations for electric cars and in the cars themselves.

29:07  The symposium starts on Sept. 8 and is formally titled The Agile Ground Vehicle Dynamics Energy Efficiency and Performance in Severe Environments International Engineering Symposium. It will be hosted by the UAB School of Engineering and Department of Mechanical Engineering, Barber Motorsports, Southern Company, the Birmingham Chapter of American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the International Society for Terrain Vehicle Systems.
Speakers will include:
Other symposium participants will include Ford Motor Company, General Motors, John Deere and Volvo.
Conference registration is $250 for students and professionals from developing countries, $550 for professionals and $750 for exhibitors. Registration discounts are available to local companies and academic institutions. UAB students, faculty and staff may attend workshops at no cost, but must pay to attend the banquet. For more information, contact Dr. Vantsevich at or 205-975-5855.

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