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IT students delve into system prototyping

Three men stand next to a pet feeder, located on the left.

Josh Werkmeister, Josh Hartley and Jackson Pasqua-Wright, students in MU Engineering’s Information Technology program, designed and retrofitted an automated system that operates a commercially-made pet feeder, seen left.

If you’ve ever looked at something you own or a product on a shelf, and thought, “This would be so much better if only…,” you aren’t alone. A new class in the Information Technology program is allowing  students Josh Werkmeister, Josh Hartley and Jackson Pasqua-Wright to chase that impulse.

IT instructor Matthew Dickinson’s course on “System Prototyping with Hardware and Software,” is giving the students a crack at modifying and repurposing existing products, using open-source components and a bit of coding know-how.

“I just have students building things,” said Dickinson. “The class basically takes technology off the shelf, small bits of technology — Arduinos, embedded computers — and throws it together to make something that works in a way it didn’t before.”

An Arduino is an electronic microcontroller designed to coordinate functions between electronic components, such as switches, sensors or motors. These small, open-source pieces of hardware have achieved distinction in the do-it-yourself electronics market for their near-limitless compatibility, and Dickinson is teaching his students to take advantage of them.

“The programming for it is very simple,” Dickinson said. “The students learn rapid development and new technologies they haven’t been exposed to before, and they get a real-world project that’s ideally fun that they can do together and share collaboratively. It’s collaborative learning.”

Students divided into six teams to produce, over the course of a semester, six new adaptations or improvements on existing technology. Werkmeister, Hartley and Pasqua-Wright settled on building a smarter, automated pet feeder they’re tentatively calling the ‘Feed-O-Matic’.

“Or, I don’t know, just ‘The Pet Feeder’,” said Hartley, sitting with his team in their workspace, a basement office in Tucker Hall. “It’s basically just an automatic pet feeder with program control and portion control.”

The team started by buying a pet feeder, one with a small barrel that drops food into a tray whenever a crank is turned by hand. The team wanted to make the process smarter, more automated, so they went to work retrofitting a motor, microcontroller and radio frequency identification (RFID) antenna onto the feeder.

“Each animal will have its own RFID tag, then the owner will be able to configure the tags with whatever settings they want and the computer will be able to determine which animal it is.”

Wires protruding from a circuit board.

This Arduino is the technical “brain” of the team’s automated pet feeder.

The user settings on the Food-O-Matic will control everything from which animal can access the feeder, to feeding times, to how much each animal is allowed to have.

“It’ll have a web interface, and we’ll have some statistical data that can be configured from the web interface as well,” said Werkmeister.

“We’ve got a lot of the basic programming figured out,” Hartley added. “Right now if you go out there you could swipe a tag and it’ll spit out food.”

A demonstration showed the device cranked out half a cup of dry dog food at a time, eventually switching off after determining the animal has had enough. It’s a fully automatic food dispenser built out of small electronics, some basic hardware and programming knowledge, and the recognition that something as outlandish as a “smart pet feeder” is actually very plausible.

Other projects in the class are in various stages of development. One team’s arcade machine, built with a Raspberry Pi computer, is near completion, awaiting refinement of the beverage dispenser they’ve built into it. Another student is working out kinks, literal and metaphorical, in an autonomous firefighter system, designed to detect flames and shoot water automatically.

In addition to building, students have been blogging and keeping record of their progress in the hopes that they can contribute knowledge back to the hardware hacking community.

“In this class it’s really ‘hacking’ in terms of the good hacking sense – hardware hacking,” said Dickinson. “It’s taking stuff, reverse engineering it and playing with it. That’s kind of the early spirit of what early electronics was, to make it your own.”