Staying dry while biking through a downpour, improving your odds of rescue from a distressed boat, or simply cooking up a delicious meal in the wilderness: All could be among the benefits of a slew of inventive devices unveiled Monday night before an enthusiastic audience at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium.
The proposals came from students who presented their final prototypes after a semester of working in the MIT mechanical engineering course 2.009 (Product Engineering Processes). The theme of this year’s competition: the outdoors.
Two product designs aimed to help prepare meals in the wild. One of these, a two-burner propane stove called Ferno, features a slim design just one-sixth the volume of a typical folding camp stove and weighing 4 pounds less — potentially big advantages on a long hike. The Ferno features a built-in windscreen that doubles as a support for the stove’s cooktop. The students on the team said they’ve already had talks with Coleman, a manufacturer of camping gear, which has expressed interest in the invention.
Another product design, called Heatware, offers a flameless means of heating meals in dry areas where campfires are prohibited. The device uses a chemical reaction, adapted from the military’s Meals Ready to Eat, to heat the food inside an insulated container.
New products in a semester
Earlier in the semester, undergraduates enrolled in 2.009 were divided into eight teams of 15 to 19 students. Each team brainstormed a variety of product ideas in keeping with the “outdoors” theme; these were then narrowed down to a single concept to develop into a finished prototype by the semester’s end. Each team also had to develop a business plan describing how the product could be launched, how much it would cost, and how soon a company based on that product could become profitable.
The final products were introduced before a packed auditorium in presentations that were also streamed live to overflow crowds. The polished performance featured a live band, which played appropriate musical selections for each product, and even a video greeting from former vice president Al Gore.
The course’s lead instructor, professor of mechanical engineering David Wallace, emceed the proceedings in formal white tie and top hat, and was greeted with exuberant cheers. Each team presented him gifts at the end of the show, including several highlighting his Canadian origins.
Biking in the rain
Two teams developed devices to make life easier for bicyclists. One produced a system that provides directional guidance by way of handlebar vibrations, signaling when to turn without requiring the rider to look down at a display or listen to audio directions that might be inaudible over street noise. The device gets its information from a smartphone, which it then translates into coded vibrations.
Another team devised a plastic and fabric canopy, deployable in just a few seconds and supported by struts that fill with compressed air, to shield a bicyclist from rain, providing a dry ride and improved visibility. A team member demonstrated its use by riding a stationary bike under simulated rainfall from four showerheads, emerging perfectly dry in his business attire.
Skybeacon, produced by another team, is a rescue device for recreational boaters. Activated in seconds through a simple sequence of actions, the device inflates a helium balloon made of metallic mylar, which provides an effective target for radar and is easy to see in daylight; for nighttime rescues, it supports a flashing light as well.
Relief for outdoor workers
Three teams devised devices to make life easier for outdoor workers. One of them produced a mechanical harvesting system for salad greens that are now typically clipped using shears. The device uses modified hedge clippers to cut the leaves, and then vacuums them up into storage containers.
Another team devised an improved hand-truck for people who deliver beer to bars and restaurants. Often these locations require a delivery person to carry kegs, weighing 160 pounds each, down a flight of stairs. The new device can carry two kegs at a time, and uses a tread system to allow a smooth descent. Team members say the device could cut delivery times in half, while also reducing the risk of stress and injuries for workers.
Another device, called HERC (for Hygienic Efficient Receptacle Cleaning), could assist in one of the most unpleasant tasks faced by maintenance workers: cleaning the insides of trash receptacles. These receptacles are usually cleaned manually, using a sprayer that often leaves workers soaked in filthy water. Instead, this team devised an automated, self-contained system that cleans the containers much faster — and without messy splashing, as team members demonstrated onstage.
Team members interviewed MIT janitors to come up with the idea for this new product. Those maintenance workers will now get the benefit of this invention, the team announced: The HERC prototype will be donated to MIT’s Department of Facilities.