My UM Job: What do I do?

It’s been a very long time since I posted about anything engineering-related, so here’s a dual Life and Eng/Sci-Tech blog post to break this dry spell. Today’s topic is about the job I have helping out the University of Michigan’s surface effect ship research group. For those of you that don’t know, a surface effect ship is basically a hovercraft with rigid sidewalls. The research group I’m working with is studying the operation of the “finger” seals that contain the cushion of air an SES rides on.

A surface effect ship. Note the seal at the front. UM's isn't nearly as cool or functional...

To understand how the seals react in a dynamic environment, there’s a lot of instrumentation that maps pressure inside the test craft, as well as optical instrumentation that captures how the fabric of the seals deform. There’s a lot of Matlab involved, so I don’t ask about the actual data processing.

My role in all this is to ruggedize the cameras so we can put them in a moist, possibly underwater environment. One of the most important pieces is PMDTec’s time-of-flight camera:

The device is really cool, not because it costs $10,000, but because it captures a 3D representation of what it sees. Basically, it uses a pulsed infrared light source and looks at the reflected intensities to gauge how far away objects are. From that information, it can rebuild a scene in 3D with a resolution of 200×200 pixels.

And I’m building an underwater camera enclosure for it. It’s a really cool challenge, having never done any pressure-critical design before. I’ve seen harsh-environment design at the Navy @ Lakehurst before, but airtight sealing is a new one. Integrating gaskets, O-rings, and designing an enclosure for minimal penetrations while retaining functionality is a difficult problem, and I’m starting to understand why typical enclosures for consumer grade cameras cost several hundred dollars. I also have to make sure the enclosure introduces as little optical interference as possible.

Basically, I get paid to do something I wanted to do as a personal project… and I learned Solidworks and keep my MechE skills sharp… and I get to play with a bunch of cameras… win!

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