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Design of an Economical Student-built Automatic Control System

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

August 28, 2016





Conference Session

Ocean and Marine Division Technical Session 1

Tagged Division

Ocean and Marine

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Paper Authors


David Clippinger P.E. U.S. Coast Guard Academy

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CDR Clippinger graduated from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in 1995 with a B.S. in Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. He then served as student engineer and damage control assistant aboard the Coast Guard Icebreaker Polar Star (WAGB 10), homeported in Seattle, Washington, and deployed in support of operation Deep Freeze 1996. From 1997 to 1999, he participated in the U.S. Navy officer exchange program aboard the U.S. Navy destroyer Peterson (DD 969), serving as Combat Information Center Officer, Gunnery, as well as a Weapons Officer for two deployments to the Mediterranean in support of NATO operations. He initially taught in the USCGA Mathematics Department after completing his M.S. in Applied Mathematics at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He also holds a Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with nonlinear ship dynamics as his area of research. He joined the Engineering Department in 2002 and has taught courses in Control Systems, Experimental Methods, Engineering Math and Engineering Design.

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Ronald Adrezin U.S. Coast Guard Academy Orcid 16x16

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Professor Ron Adrezin, Ph.D., P.E. is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, CT. He has been a licensed professional engineer for over twenty years and worked primarily in the aerospace and biomedical engineering fields. He has utilized the capabilities of additive manufacturing for over a decade, originally applying it to space suit and helicopter centered projects. At the Academy, he teaches design courses that include lessons on solid modeling, and additive manufacturing as well as classic subtractive methods such as accomplished with a mill or lathe. He earned his B.E. and M.E. at The Cooper Union, and his Ph.D. at Rutgers University. All are in mechanical engineering.

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Mary Shalane Regan U.S. Coast Guard Academy

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Shalane Regan is a native of Massachusetts and currently resides in Connecticut. She is a graduate of the University of Hartford, where she earned a Bachelor of Science Degree in Mechanical Engineering (2007) and Master of Engineering Degree in Mechanical Engineering (2013). Before coming to the Coast Guard Academy, Ms. Regan worked in the aerospace industry as a Project Engineer for Air-Lock, Inc.

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Many marine engineering programs feature the opportunity for students to take a controls theory class as part of their curriculum, either as a required course or as an elective. While the benefit of providing a hands-on demonstration for theoretical material is well-known, controls courses often suffer from the lack of affordable, robust hands-on hardware for student use. Instructors in such courses can struggle to find the appropriate balance between the opportunity to maximize hands-on learning and the costs and risks to delicate and expensive equipment that such opportunities afford.

The authors propose an affordable ball-and-beam controls system as a student-built project. The students were presented with the challenge of rolling a ball along a centrally pivoted rail (akin to a see-saw) and controlling the angle of the beam in such manner so as to make the ball roll and then stop and hold position within 5 centimeters of the end without falling off. Successful completion of the challenge was assigned a score worth 20% of the grade in the course.

Students enrolled in the course developed the transfer function for the ball-and-beam system by approximating the ball as a homogeneous sphere of known diameter that rolls without slipping. Small-angle approximations were used for the external input. The control system consisted of an electrical servo motor controlled by a commercially available open-course microcontroller. Students developed their own text-based code or “sketch” to program the microcontroller with a “PD” (proportional-plus-derivative) control algorithm.

The project was successfully piloted in a senior level controls course at the authors’ institution. Benefits to the project include the hands-on application of theoretical material, portability and low cost. The latter was particularly helpful as it provided the students with a level of ownership and control over the project. The total cost of the project is less than the retail cost of a typical new-edition textbook. An end of semester assessment via direct observation techniques showed that 100% of the students attempting the controller design challenge were able to successfully design a working controller. The project is proposed for consideration by programs seeking to liven up an otherwise heavily theoretical course with a hands-on, yet affordable, activity.

Clippinger, D., & Adrezin, R., & Regan, M. S. (2016, June), Design of an Economical Student-built Automatic Control System Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.26682

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