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Using Mounted Smartphones as a Platform for Laboratory Education in Engineering

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2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

June 26, 2016

Start Date

June 26, 2016

End Date

June 29, 2016





Conference Session

Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies: Best Papers

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Division Experimentation & Lab-Oriented Studies

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Paper Authors


Anthony Steven Brill New York University

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Anthony Brill received his B.S. degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Nevada, Reno, in 2014. He is currently a M.S. student at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, studying Mechanical Engineering. He is also a fellow in their GK-12 program, promoting STEM education. He conducts research in the Mechatronics and Controls Laboratory, where his interests include using smart mobile devices in closed loop feedback control.

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Jared Alan Frank New York University

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Jared A. Frank received his B.S. degree in 2010 and M.S degree in 2012 in Mechanical Engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering, where he conducts research in the Mechatronics and Controls Laboratory. He is also an instructor and mentor of SMARTER, an NSF-funded Research Experiences for Teachers (RET) site at the NYU Tandon School of Engineering. His interests include the incorporation of smart mobile devices (i.e. smartphones and tablets) in mechatronics, telerobotics, cyber physical systems, and wireless feedback control systems.

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Vikram Kapila New York University Orcid 16x16

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Vikram Kapila is a Professor of Mechanical Engineering at NYU Tandon School of Engineering (NYU Tandon), where he directs a Mechatronics and Control Laboratory, a Research Experience for Teachers Site in Mechatronics and Entrepreneurship, a GK-12 Fellows project, and a DR K-12 research project, all funded by NSF. He has held visiting positions with the Air Force Research Laboratories in Dayton, OH. His research interests include K-12 STEM education, mechatronics, robotics, and control system technology. Under Research Experience for Teachers Site and GK-12 Fellows programs, funded by NSF, and the Central Brooklyn STEM Initiative (CBSI), funded by six philanthropic foundations, he has conducted significant K-12 education, training, mentoring, and outreach activities to integrate engineering concepts in science classrooms and labs of dozens of New York City public schools. He received NYU Tandon’s 2002, 2008, 2011, and 2014 Jacobs Excellence in Education Award, 2002 Jacobs Innovation Grant, 2003 Distinguished Teacher Award, and 2012 Inaugural Distinguished Award for Excellence in the category Inspiration through Leadership. Moreover, he is a recipient of 2014-2015 University Distinguished Teaching Award at NYU. In 2004, he was selected for a three-year term as a Senior Faculty Fellow of NYU Tandon’s Othmer Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies. His scholarly activities have included 3 edited books, 7 chapters in edited books, 1 book review, 55 journal articles, and 126 conference papers. He has mentored 1 B.S., 17 M.S., and 4 Ph.D. thesis students; 31 undergraduate research students and 11 undergraduate senior design project teams; over 300 K-12 teachers and 100 high school student researchers; and 18 undergraduate GK-12 Fellows and 60 graduate GK-12 Fellows. Moreover, he directs K-12 education, training, mentoring, and outreach programs that enrich the STEM education of over 1,500 students annually.

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In recent years, smartphones have become an integral part of our daily lives and advancements in mobile technology have redefined the capabilities of these devices. The sensing, storage, computation and communication (SSCC) power of smartphones has reached an all-time high, creating a unique opportunity for the integration of smartphone as a platform in engineering laboratory education. Specifically, the advanced sensors embedded in smartphones enable a wide range of sensing applications that can be exploited in the closed-loop feedback control of laboratory test-beds. Furthermore, the touchscreen facilitates an intuitive interface that can improve students’ learning experiences while interacting with the test-beds. In this paper, we will present three examples of wirelessly controlling a DC motor test-bed using different modes of sensing from a mounted smartphone, with all sensing and computation being performed in the background by the mobile application. To make this new class of educational systems more accessible to researchers and educators, an open-source library is developed and made available.

To control the position of the DC motor, both the angular position and angular velocity of its arm must be known at each time step. The smartphone has been used to sense these quantities with two different sensing schemes: inertial measurements and vision-based measurements. To measure the position and velocity of the motor arm, the smartphone is rigidly mounted to it. In the first approach, the embedded inertial measurement unit (IMU) of the phone is used to measure both the angular position and angular velocity of the smartphone, and in turn, of the motor arm. The gyroscope provides raw measurements of the angular velocity, while sensor fusion from gyroscope and accelerometer measurements yields the angular position estimate. In the second approach, vision-based measurements are collected using the front-facing camera of the mounted smartphone. A platform is fitted with colored markers in the view of the camera and a color segmentation approach is used to determine the location of each marker in the image. Changes in the orientation of the phone are determined from changes in the location of each marker in the image. Finally, in the third approach, a multi-modal sensing technique is used wherein inertial and vision-based measurements are fused to produce reliable estimates of the arm’s motion. The variance in each measurement is considered in the data fusion technique implemented. Process and measurement noise are handled by implementing a Kalman filter, which yields estimates of angular position and angular velocity. Both the Kalman filter and feedback controller algorithms are implemented on the mobile application.

Smartphone-mounted experimental test-beds facilitate readily accessible, inquiry-based learning experiences, where standard control techniques such as system identification and pole placement controller design are performed on the device and their effects on the system’s response are investigated in real-time. System identification is used to obtain models of dynamic systems using empirical data. In the context of the DC motor test-bed, students make use of data extracted from the smartphone to generate a dynamic model of the system which in turn is used to design different controllers and to investigate the system’s response. A fundamental approach to full-state feedback controller design is the pole placement technique, where the location of the poles in the s-plane determines the characteristics of the system’s response. In this case, the touchscreen on the smartphone is used to create an interactive s-plane, where students choose the desired poles and a new controller is designed on the fly. Students then investigate phenomena such as overshoot, oscillations, and steady-state errors.

The use of mounted-smartphone test-beds to teach students closed-loop feedback control concepts creates the opportunity to model systems, design controllers, and observe system behavior using the students’ personal devices. The full version of this paper will further elaborate on each of the different sensing approaches, include a full lesson design, discuss the open-source library, and provide results of assessment by a cohort of undergraduate students.

Brill, A. S., & Frank, J. A., & Kapila, V. (2016, June), Using Mounted Smartphones as a Platform for Laboratory Education in Engineering Paper presented at 2016 ASEE Annual Conference & Exposition, New Orleans, Louisiana. 10.18260/p.27153

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