Hearty enthusiasm for beach art and ski touring

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A robot that can create works of art in the sand and a ski-touring boot that facilitates natural movement: these are just two of eleven innovative ideas being presented by engineering students from ETH Zurich at the launch of this year’s focus projects.


The robot called BeachBot can draw hearts. (Photo: ETH Zurich/BeachBot)

For students on the Mechanical and Process Engineering programme, the third year of studies is a special one: they have the chance to put their knowledge into practice as part of a “focus project” and develop a product based on their own ideas or in cooperation with industry. In teams of five to eight, the students spend two semesters working independently to realise their product. Two of the innovations produced this year are the beach robot BeachBot and the TourBo (Touring Boot) ski boot.

BeachBot – the robot that can draw hearts

The BeachBot team is made up of eight ETH Zurich students – one electrical engineer and seven mechanical engineers – plus two students from Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK).

Their industry partner, Disney Research Zurich, allowed them plenty of freedom right from the start, as BeachBot team member Jonathan Huber recalls. His teammate Timo Müller adds that he may never enjoy so much freedom for developing a product again in his professional life. This, combined with an interest in robotics and the allure of putting ideas into practice, is what motivated the eight team members, who did not know each other before, to see the project through.

Their mission was clear: to design an entertainment robot that produces works of art on the beach. The result is a small robot encased in a turtle shell that can accurately retrace a programmed line on the sand and thus draw a work of art.

A great deal of thought and a lot of practical effort went into developing this “turtle”: how big should the robot be? How should it entertain people? These were the kind of questions raised in the concept discussions at the beginning. The students had to come up with a concept, order the components for the robot, have special parts designed and produced using CAD, put the product together, program its motion sequences and test it out. “We did not always agree on everything,” says Jonathan Huber, “but the team always found a solution that everyone could live with.” Their first target was to complete the hardware during the winter.

Not everything worked at the first attempt. Huber recalls feeing somewhat discouraged when he tried to adapt the software to a new laser. “That was far more complicated that I had expected,” explains another team member, Lorenz Wellhausen. And when the BeachBot caught fire at Easter, they feared this would cause disastrous delays to the project, but – as Jonathan Huber adds – they were very lucky.

The project also called for some improvisation skills: since Zurich has no beach, the team had to test their robot on a beach volleyball court. Their efforts paid off, as the BeachBot can now not only trace a line in the sand – it can draw entire hearts.

TourBo – a comfortable boot for ski touring

Unlike the BeachBot, the TourBo is based on an idea from student and team member Rudolf Maculan, who came up with the concept after realising that no significant progress had been made in developing ski bindings specifically for ski-touring enthusiasts.

Five mechanical engineering students from ETH Zurich and one design engineer from ZHdK, all keen skiers themselves, eventually got together to form a team. According to team member Jonas Schwarz, they, too, barely knew each other before starting the TourBo project.

The original idea was to produce a better ski-touring binding, but the five-strong team soon discovered that such a concept already existed. They therefore set to work on the footwear instead, Pere Molins recalls: “What fascinates me about the focus project is that, unlike other parts of the study programme, where the problems are predefined, with the TourBo project we first had to find out what the problem was.

Their solution is a ski boot with a touring mechanism integrated into the sole, which enables a comfortable walking motion when going uphill while allowing an optimum downhill performance. Molins believes that learning how to work independently and develop products will be valuable to the team in their later careers, while Schwarz comments that the search for sponsors was a very time-consuming process. The team’s decision to convert the boot from the originally planned size 44 to size 42 proved to be their most labour-intensive task. At Christmas the students found themselves having to shorten all of the components.

Fabian Rüegg recalls that they were all the more delighted when they were able to take their first steps in the prototype boots in the snow in Klosters in early April. He is extremely enthusiastic about their system: “The TourBo is actually quite simple. Unlike conventional ski-touring bindings, where the foot remains fastened at the front, the TourBo makes it possible to take natural steps.”

This means that people who want to go ski touring only have to buy the boot rather than another binding. The team still plans to produce a second, improved prototype before the focus projects are launched on Tuesday. They want to test out both models in Engelberg, where the ski resort is still open. Schwarz’s only regret is that they can no longer try out their boot in different types of snow. A patent application has already been submitted for their product – after all, no-one on the TourBo team wants to give up the project now.

Focus project rollout

A total of eleven teams will be presenting their Focus Projects to the public at the rollout event on 27 May 2014. The presentations will be on show in the Audi Max auditorium (Main Building F 30) between 2.00 p.m. and 4.00 p.m. The projects will then be put on display in the main hall of the ETH Zurich Main Building.

Further information  (in German).

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