Engineering students demonstrate product prototypes

Whether you’re planning to ride a horse or a motorcycle, compete in swimming or wrestling, do some yoga or sell some veggies, organize your workshop or calm an elderly relative, MIT’s mechanical engineering students may be able to help you do it better.

Before a raucous crowd in MIT’s Kresge Auditorium on Monday night, eight teams of students in the capstone course for mechanical engineering majors — 2.009: Product Engineering Processes — presented their projects from this semester. Many of these prototypes — despite being conceived, designed, and tested over just three months — appeared to be almost ready for the marketplace.

The presentations provided quite a spectacle, including a live horse on the Kresge stage. The horse was there to demonstrate a product designed to reduce the risk of injury to horses engaged in competitions.

The horse, named Pinky, stood patiently as the team explained their invention, a set of specially equipped “boots.” The EquiTemp boots have temperature sensors to determine when a horse has warmed up enough to compete safely, and then when it has cooled down. There are about 2.7 million show horses in the United States, senior Katie Chasins explained; 82 percent of them will sustain a leg injury at some point — injuries that can be averted with proper warmup and cooldown. The team has filed a provisional patent application for the device, and has found strong interest from manufacturers of existing horse boots (which are used to protect the ankles from injury during practice sessions).

If your preferred mode of transportation is a motorcycle, a new accessory might save time, and possibly make for a safer ride: a heads-up navigation system that can easily be clipped to a helmet, providing driving directions without distracting from the road ahead. The device, called Mira, uses special lenses to provide GPS-generated directions in a view that appears to be floating 15 feet ahead — eliminating not only the need to look away, but even the need to change focus.

Two other teams focused their attention on athletic mats. One designed a device to clean and sterilize the mats used for wrestling matches; wrestlers are 16 times likelier to contract skin infections than athletes in other sports. Another group designed a yoga mat, called Glow, with embedded LED lights and pressure sensors to provide instructions on where to place hands and feet, for those just learning the poses, and feedback on how well balanced a user is, to help improve yoga routines.

During a question-and-answer period, one audience member asked the mat cleaner could be used on the yoga mat. (The answer: Yes, it probably can.)

For those competing as triathletes, one help in training could be Poseidon, a laser device that shines a green dot on the bottom of a swimming pool to maintain a preset pace for laps. The portable device can be attached to the side of a pool using magnets; the swimmer then just follows the dot.

After all that exercise, a person might be famished. Enter Verda, a portable farmstand that can easily be towed behind a bicycle. The colorful, sturdy but lightweight cart (which weighs 100 pounds empty, and can carry a 200-pound load) provides bins for fresh produce and a canvas canopy. The prototype device, the team announced, will be donated to a food cooperative in Boston’s Mattapan neighborhood.

Another team introduced a very different kind of product: a robotic companion for elderly people suffering from dementia. Studies have found that pets can help calm these patients, but pet ownership can be costly and demanding — and is forbidden in many facilities. This team’s answer: a small robotic otter, called Ollie, with fuzzy fur that can be removed for washing, eyes that open and close, and paws that move and hold the user’s hand. It also has a soft belly that invites rubbing, eliciting joyful chirps and purrs. This “therapeutic companion” is designed to sell for $500; comparable devices now on the market sell for $6,000 and up.

Finally, a device called BitDex can automatically determine the size of a drill bit for proper storage, taking just 4 seconds per bit and achieving 95 percent accuracy — not only faster, but also much more accurate than existing methods using calipers or gauges.

At the presentation’s end, when students presented a giant thank-you card to David Wallace, the professor of mechanical engineering and engineering systems who leads a team of 16 instructors in 2.009, he turned the attention back to them. “This is all about the students,” he said. “They’ve done a fantastic job.”