How can you keep hackers from controlling your car?

Mechanical Engineering junior Andrew Sun was planning his summer break when fascinating research in Assistant Professor Venkat Viswanathan’s lab piqued his interest. “The project looked into the process of possibly having your battery drained in an electric car,” says Sun.

As our vehicles become increasingly more intelligent, they also become more vulnerable. “Inside an electric car, there’s a programming control unit which controls the operation of the battery,” he explains. “If hackers can access this control unit, they can feed it their own code and cause it to behave in ways it shouldn’t, making the car less effective.”

The research team split into two groups: one trying to hack into the car, the other—the team Sun was on—studying all of the things that could possibly go wrong with an electric vehicle battery. They pored over mountains of data, learning everything they could about the normal operation of a battery, in order to find ways to ensure the safety of the driver.

This isn’t research that can be completed in just a couple of months—although the summer ended, Sun’s passion for the work hasn’t.

“This research is something I’m very interested in continuing,” Sun says. “We want to see the results of where this can go.”


Yichu Jin

Source: Carnegie Mellon University

Yichu Jin

Why do rebots need muscles?

Mechanical Engineering senior Yichu Jin spent his summer flexing—electronics, that is. As an undergraduate research assistant in Assistant Professor Carmel Majidi’s Soft Machines Lab, Jin devoted his time developing flexible materials that go rigid in response to an electric charge, much like our muscles do.

“The idea is to start by building one cell,” Jin explains, “and then expand that to an array design.” Each of these cells is really two layers of material applied one on top of the other. In its resting state, the material can be pulled and stretched like a rubber band. However, when a current is applied at each end, the material locks up and becomes rigid. “If you apply around 200 volts, you’re able to increase the rigidity of the material by about 17 times,” Jin says. “That’s the best result I’ve gotten in the lab so far.”

These flexible cells have all sorts of applications in the future of soft robotics—including robotic muscles—that might one day make the bodies of our robots just as pliable and responsive as our own.

“There are a lot of possible applications for this rigidity-tuning device—artificial muscles for humanoid and bio-inspired robots, exoskeletons that prevent injury during collisions, or even clothing-embedded technology for military use,” Jin says.

“One thing I learned about doing research is that you have to have a calm mindset,” says Jin, “because this is the nature of research: You fail and then you try again, and then it gives you hope, and then you fail again. But eventually you do succeed.”