The Launching Pad

Top government agencies, other universities, and companies are relying on the University’s Robotics Systems Lab – and its students – to build and monitor satellites.

The Launching Pad

A century ago, Santa Clara Professor John Montgomery led his students into a new frontier of aviation. An obelisk near Varsi Hall marks the spot where his tandem wing glider was balloon-launched to 4,000 feet in 1905.

Nearly 100 years later, vehicles launched by Santa Clara Mechanical Engineering Professor Christopher Kitts and his students have orbited the Earth and patrolled the depths of the oceans. While humans piloted Montgomery’s inventions, Kitts and his engineering students use computers to control robots and monitor satellites circling the planet.


As part of their senior design projects, SCU students build these robots and satellites-an opportunity that few other undergraduates in the United States have. And these projects don’t just stay in the classroom-they have real-life applications. Top government agencies, other universities, and companies are relying on the University’s Robotics Systems Lab (RSL)-and its students-to build and monitor satellites.

Real-life robots

A robot may conjure images of something like R2-D2 from “Star Wars” or an electronic companion that vacuums the floor on its own. But at the RSL, which Kitts runs and where students build, the robots don’t look human at all. Instead, they are remotely operated vehicles that are built to collect data, survive the rigors of underwater submersion to 500 meters, and travel to hundreds of miles above the Earth.

During their yearlong projects, 40 undergraduates in the RSL program also develop some down-to-earth skills, such as teamwork, problem solving, and making presentations.

At the same time-in between some late nights of hard work-they’re also having fun. Kitts and his collaborators, Jeff Ota and Pascal Stang, start students off as juniors with a mechatronics class where they learn how to make simpler devices, such as dueling robots that fire ping pong balls at each other.

On a mission with NASA

The next mission of the Robotic Systems Lab is into the NASA Ames Research Park in Mountain View. The lab is currently located in a few classrooms and storage facilities in and around the Bannan Engineering Building, and those locations will remain intact. But in February, SCU joined with San Jose State University and Stanford University to open the Space Technology Center (STC) in former military buildings at Moffett Field in Mountain View. The new joint venture promises more room and opportunities for Santa Clara’s students.

Robotics is a focus of the NASA Ames Research Center, according to Dave Engelbert, director of the STC. “So there’s a lot of potential for collaboration and research in that area between Santa Clara and NASA,” he says.

The robots-which sometimes are seen at SCU going up the steps of Bannan Engineering-will have plenty of room to roam at the NASA site. “We anticipate use of the airstrip for our multi-plane demonstrations, the pool for underwater robots, the high bays and hangars for our blimps and high-altitude balloon testing, and the fields for our land rovers,” Kitts adds.

Mars Yard

Kitts has even bolder plans for the technology center: he aims to create a landscape there that looks like Mars-a “Mars Yard.” It will resemble the surface of Mars and allow students, children, and the public to remotely drive rovers similar to those on the red planet today. Kitts is putting the final pieces of funding together now, hoping that some of next fall’s seniors can develop it for their senior design project. The yard, which will also be used extensively for research studies, will be in a parking lot next to the STC.

The Mars Yard should prove to be a popular site for local school children, who already visit the Robotics Systems Lab at SCU. For those who can’t make it to the yard, a web site will offer a chance to control the rovers.

SCU in space

SCU’s space program, as it were, began in 1998 with the construction of a satellite called Barnacle. Government regulations on international cooperation involving spacecraft prevented Barnacle from launching into orbit, but the project set the stage for future successes. In 1999 came Artemis, a collection of three small satellites built by a seven-member team of female engineering students. The satellites were launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in Central California in January 2000.

And the program has literally taken off from there. The Robotics Systems Lab has contracts with such federal agencies as NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to build robots and conduct research. Other universities, including Stanford, MIT, Washington University of St. Louis, and the University of Texas, have hired SCU to build components for their space satellites.


This spring, SCU senior Jennifer Lundquist is part of a four-woman senior design team building a satellite that will be part of a larger satellite being built by Washington University. “Our team is dealing with the communication between two transceivers [a transmitter] on the main satellite and one on [ours],” she explains. “Another SCU group is working on the communications between the ground and the main satellite.”

Students say they enjoy building the projects after years of soaking up theories in class. “This was way more intriguing and sophisticated because it was hands on,” says Rob Watson ’03, who worked on a microsatellite project.

Students also get the opportunity to work with students from different realms of engineering. In Lundquist’s group, for example, her colleagues are from mechanical and electrical engineering. Other projects have included students majoring in computer engineering.

“They learn the vocabulary of other engineers in a different discipline, how to interact with them and work in a team, how to do their own management as a team,” Kitts says.

Alumni careers take off

Alumni speak highly of their experiences in the robotics lab.

“Chris is all about linking engineering concepts and theories to the real world,” said Maureen Breiling ’99 who worked on Artemis, “and that’s really what gets the students excited.”

Chad Bullich ’98, M.S. ’03 is a mechanical design engineer at Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company in Sunnyvale. “I would credit the robotics lab with developing all the skills I use today-working on teams and applying engineering knowledge to real-world robotics,” he says. Bullich now designs entire solar panel systems for spacecraft-a logical extension of work he did as an undergrad designing a miniature power system with solar cells.

Corina Hu ’99, who works in the flight software group at Space Systems/Loral in Palo Alto, was one of the members of the Artemis team. She says the project had a dramatic impact on her career. “Without that project, I wouldn’t be here right now,” she says. Artemis “prompted me to apply for a masters in aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford, and subsequently really inspired me to pursue a career in the space industry. It opened doors and possibilities that I never even considered before,” she explains.

Eric Hulin ’00, who at SCU worked on an underwater robotic vehicle called Mantaris, says “I think what helped me most in the lab was the hands-on experience that I got from designing something from start to finish. The projects that I was able to work on there were not basic projects-they required hard work and a lot of teamwork.” Hulin works for Acushnet Company in San Diego, where he is a manufacturing engineer in the company’s golf club operations building. The SCU projects, he says, “made me very aware of what engineering is all about, and I think I was more confident upon graduation because of the lab.”

SCU students have worked on 10 satellites since Kitts came to the University five years ago. At one point, students were going to see one of their student-built satellites used on the U.S. space shuttle missions. But after the shuttle Columbia exploded in early 2003, the satellite launch of Emerald was put on hold.

Launch3 Md
Santa Clara engineering students such as Sara Nazemian (holding satellite) and Jennifer Lundquist have worked on 10 satellites like this one during the last five years. The student-built projects - many of which can fit into a person's hand - offer aspiring engineers vital experience applying theories to real-world applications.

Kitts’ leadership

Kitts, who earned degrees from Princeton University, the University of Colorado, and Stanford, served in the U.S. Air Force and worked at Ames Research Center prior to coming to Santa Clara to work on remote operating vehicles such as satellites. In 1999, while completing graduate work in mechanical engineering at Stanford University, Kitts’ classmate Jeff Ota, an adjunct professor at Santa Clara, asked him to help students build a spacecraft.

“I think what helped me most in the lab was the hands-on experience that I got from designing something from start to finish.”

Kitts liked his experience at SCU and he decided to stay. He holds a research professorship, and grants from outside organizations pay a portion of his salary and fund the salaries of his staff members. Linda Campbell, director of sponsored projects at SCU, says Kitts has brought more than $1.6 million in outside grants to run the programs.

The projects he directs “help the University be in the spotlight of areas of real current interest,” Campbell says.

The funding Kitts raises is used to purchase equipment and supplies and pay salaries of the five part-time employees (often graduate students) who work with him and the students to build satellites. Kitts often co-advises senior projects with Neil Quinn, a senior lecturer in computer engineering, and Timothy Hight, a professor of mechanical engineering.

“I’m very impressed with the breadth of his program,” says Michael Swartwout, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering who is building satellites at Washington University. “To some extent, I’m patterning the way I run our program after what he’s done at Santa Clara.”

Tracking satellites

SCU students have the chance to follow an orbiting satellite from inside the Bannan Engineering Building on campus. On a daily basis, students are in contact with Sapphire, a satellite that Kitts and Swartwout built together. They follow it with the aid of antennae on Bannan’s roof.

A computer program on the third floor of the building calculates where to point the antennae. During the 10 or 15 minutes the satellite is overhead in space, the students can give commands to Sapphire via a two-way HAM radio.

“Sapphire is also used to support data communications, perform Earth photography, and demonstrate a number of advanced automation technologies,” Kitts says.

A launching pad to success

In a story he wrote for Robotics & Automation Magazine, Kitts says the Santa Clara program’s mix of engineers and scientists from a variety of educational levels and from numerous organizations “creates a particularly stimulating environment for technical education and engineering innovation.”

“Most importantly,” he continues, “it serves to prepare undergraduates with the systems-level appreciation for engineering that is crucial to success in their careers.”

Larry Sokoloff J.D. ’92 is a freelance writer and attorney in Sunnyvale. He is also a lecturer in SCU’s communication department.

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