Teams, industry judges descend on MU for DARPA-sponsored RevCon Challenge
More than a year’s worth of work came down to just one presentation and a lab test for engineering students from around the world at the University of Missouri.
The teams described the analysis that went into the design and fabrication of their prototypes. After explaining their processes and fielding questions from industry representatives, they put their connector prototypes to the test in an experimental facility built for this contest. All this was part of the 2014 International Field-Reversible Thermal Connector Challenge (RevCon Challenge), hosted Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 by the University of Missouri under the sponsorship of Dr. Avram Bar-Cohen at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Seven teams of graduate and undergraduate students demonstrated field-reversible thermal connectors designed for the demanding world of high-power military electronics. They were evaluated by a host of industry experts who eyed their creations from the perspective of commercial implementation.
The process began back in August 2013, when the request went out for participants. Proposals were due by November of last year, and after a prototype presentation and midterm report in May, competing teams were trimmed down to the finalists: MU, University of Illinois, Georgia Tech, Mississippi State University, University of Maryland, Donghua University in China and National Tsing Hua University in Taiwan. A final prototype from each team was due in mid-October.
The thermal connectors were designed with the intent of being able to help cool the electronics systems of military radar and electronic warfare systems so they do not overheat from constant use. The challenge was to design the connectors so that they would allow an electronic module to be inserted and removed multiple times from an enclosure, while not sacrificing thermal performance.
The Mizzou team, led by student presenters Run Yan and Bo Zhang and faculty advisers Matt Maschmann and Yuyi Lin of the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department, took top honors in the best overall design category. Those students contributing to the MU team were Yan, Zhang and Robert S. Humphry.
“We’re really happy we could tackle some real-world things with our engineering resources, and the supporting manager is DARPA, and that’s really impressive,” Zhang said of the opportunity to present the team’s work.
Illinois earned the best teamwork award and commercial potential honors; best in ease of installation and removal went to Maryland. Georgia Tech and Mississippi State topped the multidisciplinary design category; Tsing Hua earned top marks in thermal resistance; and Dong-Hua won the Most Innovative Award,
The eight judges took both the presentation and the practical test into account in scoring the teams. The practical test consisted of using the thermal connector to hold a simulated electronic module in a cold block typically used in a military electronic enclosure. Some teams improved on designs from previous iterations in the first two RevCon Challenges, while some, including MU, developed new connectors from scratch. Each team was able to request up to $7,500 from DARPA for the competition, $2,000 of which went to travel expenses.
“We never imagined we’d get here. We just went step by step and did our best,” Yan said of the nearly year-long project.
MAE Professor C.L. Chen directed the Challenge’s efforts at MU alongside Associate Professor Gary Solbrekken, and Chen said the judges were pleased with the event as a whole and, particularly, the performance and innovation of the student teams. One judge told Chen in an email that he was “simply moved by their passion.”
“The students are highly self-motivated, very creative and have lots of passion,” Chen said. “The interaction between the judges and student teams was worth watching. This is not something that students can easily learn in the classroom. With this kind of stimulation, it’s a really high payoff for all participants.
“This is DARPA’s vision, to try to give these students a great learning experience from challenging real world problems. It’s really a win-win. Students enjoy coming here and showing how good they are.”
This year’s competition marked the first time MU hosted the prestigious event after two years at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. Both students and judges took a campus tour after the completion of the connector demonstrations, and on Saturday, they attended an award ceremony, a barbecue and the MU-Kentucky football game. In addition to providing students with a chance to show their skills and a taste of life in Columbia, Mo., the RevCon Challenge gave the MU College of Engineering a chance to build or further a relationship with the industry heavyweights represented by the judges.
The judges came from a who’s-who of industry-leading institutions: DARPA, the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), Raytheon Integrated Defense Systems, HRL Laboratories, Lockheed Martin Space Systems Company, BAE Systems, Advanced Cooling Technologies and Honeywell.
“We wanted to try and let them see our research, our university, and hopefully we can make our cooperation even stronger — let them know us,” Chen said.
In addition to DARPA and AFRL and industrial judges, Chen and Solbrekken acknowledged the support from the dean’s office and the MAE department, Mizzou Advantage, campus and engineering contract offices, and their colleagues, postdoctorates and students. “They are the people behind the scene who made this event a success,” Chen said.
As for the Mizzou team, it was a chance to flex its collective innovative muscle on its own turf against six other accomplished teams and in front of a panel of judges representing institutions for whom the team members probably wouldn’t mind working someday. MU also will host the 2015 RevCon Challenge.
“You don’t get many opportunities like that where you have this kind of international program hosted right here (at MU),” Maschmann said. “From my perspective, it’s neat to see. It’s a rare opportunity that we have a practical opportunity to solve, and everyone’s attacking the exact same problem using different engineering skills. It’s really interesting to have it here in our own backyard.”