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Engineering students get creative

The sky's the limit for Ravi Panchal, a 22-year-old Coquitlam student whose recent engineering project has helped land him a summer job building F-35 fighter jets.

The sky's the limit for Ravi Panchal, a 22-year-old Coquitlam student whose recent engineering project has helped land him a summer job building F-35 fighter jets.

Panchal was part of a team of six students in a senior Simon Fraser University engineering program who, over four months, designed and built "CHAD," the Controllable Home Assistance Device.

Simply put, the machine melds a motorized wheelchair with an iPhone app, making a robot that can walk, talk, see and hear, not all on its own, but through a two-way video-conferencing app similar to Skype and other web-cam chat programs.

"It's to aid maybe elderly people and people who need to be taken care of in-home but don't necessarily need a nurse or someone to visit them every single day," Panchal, a Riverside secondary grad, said. "This robot is basically a third eye for doctors, nurses, family or anyone with an internet connection."

To make CHAD a reality, half of Panchal's group set to work mounting a circuitry cabinet to the motorized wheelchair, while the other half rigged up the electrical hardware, web camera, speaker and receiver to interface with their custom-built iPhone app.

"It's mostly a tool for someone to be able to check in on someone," Panchal said, noting that the robot doesn't have arms to perform tasks, but does have a compartment to store items like medications which the robot could bring to its user and remind them to take.

"It's just another example of the creativity of our students when challenged," said SFU engineering professor Andrew Rawicz in a press release from the school. He noted that several of his students' projects this year, like Panchal's, targeted the biomedical industry. "Each time the course is offered I am nicely surprised by the amount of social sensitivity the students exhibit choosing their projects. They simply want to make products which can make life easier for less fortunate members of the population."

Panchal said he aspires to be a systems engineer and keep working in robotics - the "heaven of electronics and mechanics" he called it, because of what he deemed its perfect balance between mechanical and electronic engineering.

But for now, he's found summer work this side of heaven at Avcorp Industries in Delta, where he's helping to build one of three wing variants for Lockheed Martin's F-35 Lightning fighter jet. It's a line of work that Panchal said is a bit far out on the edge of what his education has prepared him for, but at least it's on the cutting edge of modern engineering.

tcoyne@tricitynews.com