The Four Pillars: Academics
While many of his classmates are enjoying Wednesday afternoon general leave, Cadet Jeremy Webb toils over a lab table covered in wires, screws, circuit boards and power tools. In the midst of this disorder, he combines components to create an electrical device that will map the topography of a riverbed. The project is the last hurdle Webb must overcome before he can earn his degree in electrical engineering, and he plans to build one of the most spectacular designs the college has seen in some years.
Engineering has long been an important part of a Citadel education. In the past, military officers used this expertise to construct and destroy fortifications, but now graduates of the college proceed to become both civilian and military leaders in the field.
Since 1982, the department of electrical engineering has required a major design experience for graduating seniors—students must design and build a technologically-rich product and then demonstrate it before their professors.
Cadets work in teams to bring their designs to life, and the curriculum requires them to apply both the principles they learn in class as well as practical business savvy. In the fall semester, students brainstorm for project ideas and write a proposal just as they would if they were members of a professional research and development team for a major corporation.
Using a limited budget and state-of-the-art equipment in Grimsley Hall labs, the teams build their projects. During the National Engineers’ Week in February, all of the teams exhibit their works in progress.
By early April, the project teams demonstrate their designs. Some of the projects are remarkable—past student designs have included robotic golf caddies, car controls for disabled drivers and medication reminders for the elderly.
The senior engineering project—a mark of a top flight engineering school—is a proving ground for soon-to-be graduates.
Col. Johnston Peeples, department head of electrical engineering, was once a cadet himself and has been a part of the department since 1999. He prepares graduates, who not only are adept engineers, but can also be successful as entrepreneurs and assets in the corporate arena. The senior design project is practical training for professional life, similar to what students in medical school must do, and the nature of the course instills a sense of professional ethics in students.
“If we do our job wrong, we could kill people,” said Peeples. “Unlike other professionals who work in their respective fields, our client is often all of society,” he said.
At the start of the semester, Webb decides to collaborate with two Navy officer candidates, Ryan Auger and Timothy Smith. Choosing one idea is a challenge. They finally decide to build a remote-controlled airboat that will cruise a 100 by 100 square foot span of the Ashley River in 45 minutes and will map the river floor using sonar—all without human control of the vehicle. The results they receive are then uploaded onto a computer and can be used to update depth charts of the area.
The initial challenge they face is possibly the toughest—they know what they want to do, but they have no idea how it would look, how it would move, how it would gather the information, and, most importantly, how it would hold a bunch of sensitive electrical instruments without sinking or getting them wet.
After careful consideration, they decide on a pontoon-style boat because it provides a lot of buoyancy and keeps the hull and all of the electrical components out of the water. And because Webb is an avid remote-controlled airplane flyer, he decides to power the boat with an airplane engine. The boat is very similar to the airboats used in the Everglades.
At the annual Engineering Fair in February, Webb, Auger and Smith present what work they have accomplished so far. They have a bright red pontoon airboat with an aircraft engine on the stern. On the top side of the craft is a gaping hole filled with multi-colored wires and circuitry. Despite the project’s apparent disorganization, they think that they are on schedule to meet their April deadline. The wooden hull of the boat straddles two plastic pontoons. The boat has a radio-controlled airplane engine on the stern, and the propeller sits conspicuously atop the whole rig, like some sort of mechanical sail. Inside the fiberglass shell is a cavity that houses all of the sensitive equipment that is necessary to collect the data.
As the winter gives way to spring, the team begins the testing phase of their boat, which is arguably everybody’s favorite aspect of the project. Several days a week, Webb and his teammates gather up their equipment and go to The Citadel boathouse, where they take out a 12-foot aluminum boat for the afternoon. Smith and Webb take the boat out into the deep part of the channel to test its structural integrity, engine and steering. With the remote control, Webb drives the boat around the channel just like a toy, but it appears to have trouble turning. They move closer to the boat and check the rudder, which appears to be temperamental—one minute it works fine, the next it does not work at all. After running through his repertoire of repair knowledge, Webb tows the boat back to the dock and takes it out of the water. He has no idea what is wrong with the rudder, so his only choice is to fix it by trial and error. For now, he sets that obstacle aside, and he and Smith go out again—this time to test their global positioning system computer. They motor around the Ashley River for about half an hour, ensuring that the computer provides correct coordinates. Fortunately, the computer works perfectly.
They stop for the day and take their equipment back to the lab. Webb will fix the rudder another day before they test the boat again.
After months of preparation, Webb’s team finally showcases the boat for their professor. As is the nature with experimental technology, they have some problems getting the automatic steering device to work, so the team drives the boat manually with the remote control. Webb steers it back and forth in the Ashley River while the on-board computers take sonar readings of the riverbed and attach the readings to GPS data, so that each depth has a pinpoint location. After the boat has completed several of these readings, Webb brings the boat back to shore and concludes his presentation. Despite their technical hiccup, the project is a great success and a fitting end for his cadet career.
Jeremy Webb graduated in May and is currently continuing his engineering work at Virginia Tech where he is pursuing a graduate degree in power electronics systems.
Story by Cadet Andrew Harris, '08. Reprinted from "The Citadel" magazine with permission.