Learning to fly: Stanford engineering students master mechaphonics by building quadcopters

In mechanical engineering course ME 202, Stanford students learn how to turn open-source smartphone operating systems into powerful control of mechatronic devices.

Video by Kurt Hickman

In ME 202, students learn how to turn smartphones into powerful controllers of mechatronic devices like quadcopters.

Caitlin Clancy gave her quadcopter one final inspection and backed away slowly. She had spent the past week designing and building the copter, mostly from scratch, and now, the moment of truth.

She pulled up the flight controls on her Android phone, and the rotors started whirring. Seconds later, the copter shot 30 yards across the d.school atrium, flipped midair and flew into a balcony before crashing to the floor.

Clancy, a second-year master's student in mechanical engineering, took the disastrous flight in stride. In fact, she almost seemed happy.

"The result wasn't great, but it did exactly what I told it to!" she said, explaining with a laugh her throttle had been stuck too high from a previous flight. "This is my first time programming in Android, so I'm pretty happy that the controls worked. So it's fine."

That's just what consulting associate professor and lecturer Matt Ohline was hoping to hear from his students in ME 202, Mechaphonics: Smartphone-Enabled Mechatronic Systems.

More and more mechatronic devices that interface with smartphones are hitting the market, Ohline said, and designing and programming for these, both on the hardware and software sides, flexes a full body's worth of engineering muscles.

In the course, the students will learn to design and build devices, using Arduino electronics kits, and then write Android or iPhone code to control these devices.

"There are lots of ways to do this," Ohline said, "but I thought building a quadcopter would be cool. The students seem to agree!"

The power of smartphone processors and their open-source development kits has opened the door to rapid prototyping control systems for inventions, Ohline said.

"As soon as you learn the programming language, you can do a lot of complex things really easily," Ohline said. "The phones are powerful tools. You can build, test and deploy in a matter of months. It used to take much longer."

Now that the students have tested their mettle with quadcopters, they are splitting up into groups for their final project: Design and build a smartphone-enabled consumer product – something that "the world needs," Ohline said – and pitch it to a board of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

Last year, in the first offering of the course, students built a motor-driven gimbal that pulled data from a phone's motion sensors to keep a camera stable. Another group built a smart door lock that could be controlled remotely by phone.

"For many of these students, this is their first time programming in Android," Ohline said. "When you teach these courses long enough, you learn what excites and motivates students. These types of challenges really seem to bring out their best, most creative work."

Bjorn Carey, Stanford News Service: (650) 725-1944, bccarey@stanford.edu