Santa Clara University

the launching pad

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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

SCU students
SCU students use computers to track the path of satellites at the Space Technology Center at Moffett Field.  The Center is a joint venture of SCU, Stanford University, and San Jose State University. 

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.

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