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Chris Lupo interview at AATC in Chile.

Computing Cows for More Milk

Aug 10, 2018


 

Chris Lupo conducts interviews during the Academic Agriculture Technology Congress in Chile. There, he talked about how computing can be used to help improve agriculture.

By analyzing massive data collected from cattle, computer scientists hope to increase the amount of milk dairy cows can produce, said Chris Lupo, chair of the computer science and software engineering department.

“If we can produce the same milk with fewer cattle, this has less cost for the farmer and less environmental impact,” he said.

Lupo recently discussed this technology at the Academic Agricultural Technology Congress in Chile.

Dairy farming typically conjures images of dusty cattle ranchers driving pickup trucks, something Lupo addressed during the conference.

“Some of you might be wondering, ‘This is an agricultural conference in Chile,” Lupo told a crowd during his presentation. “What is a computer scientist from California doing here?”

While science has long improved agriculture – pasteurization, refrigeration and plant breeding come to mind – the inclusion of computer science is a more recent phenomenon.

“Agriculture has traditionally been a technology-starved industry, but that is rapidly changing as sensors and other data-gathering techniques become more affordable and available,” Lupo said. “When computing expertise is combined with domain expertise, amazing things can happen that can have global impact.”

One study Lupo co-authored explored the use of parallel computing to optimize genetic selection, thereby helping farmers breed the best milk-producing cows.

Parallel computing is a type of computation that carries out many calculations simultaneously. In collaboration with Cal Poly’s dairy science program, Lupo used this super computer-style processing to create a genetic selection model using data from half a million cattle.

“It worked,” he said. “We were able to speed up the computations to allow for more data to be analyzed.”

While greater milk production helps farmers and consumers, it could also lead to fewer cattle, which would help the environment. According to a United Nations report, cows produce greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

In January, 2017, there were more than 93.6 million head of cattle in the United States.

Humans are not likely to stop drinking milk – we’ve done so for about 7,500 years, according to the University College London – but more efficient cows can allow farmers to reduce the number of cows and, hence, emissions. And that’s just one way computing can contribute to agriculture.

“There are several intersections between computing and agriculture,” Lupo said. “These include automation, computer vision and machine learning, bioinformatics, and data analytics. These technologies are being used to address food safety and security, logistics and spoilage, effects of climate change, animal husbandry, and worker health.”

 

Chris Lupo with reporters during the Academic Agriculture Technology Congress in Chile.

Lupo’s visit was indirectly related to the Grand Challenges initiative with the College of Agriculture, Food and Environmental Sciences, which challenges students to work on solutions in partnerships with others to create sustainable, forward-thinking solutions. Grand challenges, which are pursued globally, are difficult but important problems identified by various institutions and professions to encourage solutions.

Future collaborations between CENG, CAFES and Chile are being considered, Lupo said.

Chile does have a Cal Poly connection: Antonio Walker, Chile’s minister of agriculture, graduated from Cal Poly in 1986 with a degree in crop science.

Continue reading Computing Cows for More Milk...
EPIC Students at Engineering Plaza

Another EPIC Summer Concludes

Aug 7, 2018


 

After a month of camps, this summer’s Engineering Possibilities in College (EPIC) program concluded last week with a variety of fun activities, including cardboard boat contests.

During the month of July, middle school and high school students were embedded in Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing philosophy, taking part in fun hands-on activities that involved building, analytical thinking and creative problem-solving.

The unique outreach program, which began with 20 students in 2007, has now grown to over 640. During the camps, students explore the many different fields of engineering while guided by faculty members and current engineering students. Projects include solar cars, rockets, robots, phone apps, bridges and more.

Check out the gallery below:

Continue reading Another EPIC Summer Concludes...
Bob Crockett at Good Morning SLO

Getting a Feel for Virtual Reality

Aug 3, 2018


Bob Crockett shows his company’s virtual reality glove to a crowd of 300 people at a recent Good Morning SLO, hosted by the San Luis Obispo Chamber of Commerce.

When you pull a virtual reality headset over your eyes, you can find yourself immersed in a place that isn’t really there, Bob Crockett told a sold-out crowd at Good Morning SLO recently.

“The first time you don one of these headsets, it’s amazing,” said Crockett, who chairs the Biomedical Engineering Department.

But, he added, the novelty of being on a virtual Mars or in a virtual aquarium wears off unless you can also feel the experience.

The company he co-founded, however, is working to change that. HaptX, a San Luis Obispo tech startup, is making virtual reality more real by allowing users to “touch” what they see.

Their HaptX gloves, as explained in this story, interfaces with virtual reality and uses precise motion tracking, along with 100 points of input on the glove, to provide tactile feedback in conjunction with what is visually portrayed in a VR headset.

Billed by the company as the “world’s only haptic wearable,” a HaptX glove will allow you to do more than just see a virtual cup of coffee.

“It stops your hand from going through a coffee cup that isn’t there,” Crockett said. “So when you interact with things you see in this headset, it feels like you’re touching them.”

The HaptX glove, designed by a San Luis Obispo startup, allows virtual reality users to also experience a sense of touch.

The company’s origins date back to 2012, when CEO Jake Rubin took his idea to Crockett. While Rubin is in Seattle, where much of the early investment originated, the company ultimately kept operations in San Luis Obispo, where it now employs around 30 engineers, most from Cal Poly.

Aided by $9 million in investment money, the company has already generated a buzz, with recent stories in Forbes, PC Gamer and Wired. Meanwhile, HaptX just shifted from making prototypes to commercialization, and over 100 Fortune 500 companies have signed up for access, Crockett said.

“We’re directed squarely at the enterprise market – the companies that want to use this for training,” Crockett said, noting that local firefighters have participated in demonstrations for industrial training.

“And this is just the first step,” he said, holding up one of the gloves. “It goes from beyond just hands -- to a whole body.”

Taylor Morris with three Cal Poly students

Amputee Study Earns Top Honor in Ireland

Aug 2, 2018


Greg Orekhov (third from left) has performed multiple projects with amputees, including the advent of a “Quick Swap” device, which allows for amputees like Taylor Morris (far right) to attach their prosthetics. Also pictured are, left to right, Andre Arguelles and Zach Hanze.

Cycling is the best form of exercise for leg amputees, according to an award-winning study led by mechanical engineering student Greg Orekhov.

Orekhov’s work summarizing the findings won first place this month in the Bachelor’s-level student paper competition at the 2018 World Congress of Biomechanics Conference in Dublin, Ireland.

The study looked at transtibial (below the knee) amputees, who are at high risk for developing osteoarthritis in their intact, or non-amputated, leg.

Osteoarthritis occurs when the cartilage and underlying bone get worn down, which can lead to a need for knee replacement. Symptoms of the condition include pain, swelling and stiffness, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With a grant from Army Medical Research and Materiel Command, Orekhov and his team sought to find which exercises should be recommended for wounded veterans in need of rehabilitation. The study featured 10 amputees and 10 control group members.

Members of control groups do not receive treatment by researchers and are used as a benchmark to measure how the other tested subjects do. Hanger Prosthetics & Orthotics was the chief source of amputee subjects.

The subjects performed three types of exercise – walking, cycling and elliptical – to test the impact on the intact leg, using motion analysis and computer modeling.

“There was no asymmetry or significant differences between amputee and control subjects in cycling,” Orekhov said.

Elliptical training is better on amputees than walking, but cycling is best, Orekhov said.

The conclusions are preliminary, he added, and results could change with expanded analysis. But it was enough to take the findings to Ireland, where 27 presenters participated at the undergraduate level.

Held every four years, the congress is billed as the premier meeting worldwide in the biomechanics field.

Now back in the States, Orekhov plans to continue sharing his work.

“An expanded paper of the work I presented at this conference will be included in the 2019 edition of ‘The Journal of Biomechanical Engineering,’” Orekhov said.

Orekhov is also continuing his studies as a graduate student.

Greg Orekhov poses alongside the poster he presented during the 2018 World Congress of Biomechanics Conference in Dublin, Ireland this month.

“By the time he defends his MS thesis, we believe Greg’s work will allow us to develop exercise guidelines for transtibial amputees that will enable them to sustain lifelong fitness while minimizing their risk of developing osteoarthritis down the road,” said Stephen Klisch, Cal Poly mechanical engineering professor and principal investigator. 

Orekhov plans to pursue a Ph.D. in bioengineering, working on improving muscle function for kids with cerebral palsy.

“My plans immediately after that are uncertain, but I plan to start a company to design low-cost intelligent prostheses in the future,” he said.

Team Joseph riding bike trailer

Cal Poly Students Create Final Piece for Disabled Son to Participate in Triathlon

Jul 31, 2018


Joseph Cornelius rides in a bike trailer created by Cal Poly mechanical engineering students as his father leads the way on a bicycle during the Project Expo. The two will participate in the SLO Triathlon July 22.

Joseph Cornelius was having a rough day.

When he arrived at the Bonderson for the Project Expo, the 24-year-old, who has cerebral palsy, looked visibly uncomfortable. And he seemed reluctant whenever his father attempted to put him in a bike trailer created by a trio of mechanical engineering students.

But once John Cornelius began peddling away from the Bonderson, towing Joseph behind, a wide smile marked Joseph’s sudden mood change.

“In that moment, we all gave a huge sigh of relief that Joseph loved the trailer,” said Keely Thompson, one of the students. “And were so excited to see him and John happy.”

Joseph getting fitted for this bike Joseph Cornelius gets introduced to his bike trailer during the Project Expo. He’s helped by (left to right) his father John, Curtis Wathne and Ryan Meinhardt.

As Joseph and John prepare to participate in the SLO Triathlon July 22, they will once again do it with technology created by Cal Poly students, who have now made it easier for the unique father-son duo to compete in each of the three events.

“In my wildest dreams, I never thought that we would share a triathlon with Joseph,” his father said recently. “Thanks to Cal Poly, the dream became a reality.”

Joseph’s condition prevents him from walking or talking. Those symptoms became apparent when the Los Osos, CA, resident was a baby.

“He used to have 75 to 100 seizures a day,” John said.

As Joseph grew older, John could see that his son reacted well to assisted walks. And soon John began running marathons with Joseph, pushing his son in a wheel chair. The inspiring father-and-son duo, along with a crew of supporters, were dubbed Team Joseph, easily identified by their bright yellow shirts.

Eventually, the Special Olympics paired with Cal Poly students to help the father and son participate in triathlons. In 2014, students created a 6-by-4 flotation device – the “Aquabullet” – that allowed Joseph to glide on water, feeling the sensation of swimming, as he’s towed by a swimmer. And in 2017, students created a jogger for Joseph.

That left one more event: bicycling.

Since Joseph’s previous trailer lacked safety and comfort features, the students set out to create a new trailer. The students – newly graduated Thompson, from Encinitas, and Ryan Meinhardt, from Sammamish, Wash. and senior Curtis Wathne, from Santa Barbara – were all members of the Human Powered Vehicles Club, whose members love to ride bikes.

“The team met with Joseph and his dad sometimes weekly and did multiple custom fitting sessions as the design and build progressed,” said faculty advisor Sarah Harding. “They really got to know their customer and his unique needs.”

The trailer they designed has a steel roll bar, a five-point racing harness, a custom seat and an attachment that allows the trailer to stay upright in the event of a bike crash.

“The key part when we sat down was safety,” said John, a retired Rite Aid store manager who has a degree in biomedical engineering.

The trailer also features a carbon fiber footplate since Joseph’s spastic quadriplegia caused him to break previous footplates, aluminum fenders to prevent him from getting his hands stuck in the wheels, better suspension and a shade hood to protect him from harsh sunlight.

The team first introduced the trailer to Joseph during the Project Expo, a College of Engineering display of student projects at Cal Poly, on June 1.

The Cal Poly projects, John said, have given Joseph more freedom to be active, which has impacted his physical and mental health.

“When you do this with him, you feel his energy,” John said. “When he’s in the bike (trailer), it’s ear-to-ear smiles.”

Curtis Wathne gives Joseph a spin around Engineering Plaza.

The trailer frame could have universal appeal for adults with disabilities, Harding said, even though Joseph’s seat cushions were custom made to fit Joseph’s unique body frame.

Just helping one person, Thompson said, was rewarding.

“Being able to use the skills that we developed throughout our experience at Cal Poly and our love for bikes to make an improvement in Joseph’s life as well as his dad’s was incredible,” she said. “Team Joseph was such an amazing and encouraging group of people to work with, and it was such an honor to be able to help Joseph do the things he loves to do.”

While Joseph’s early years were especially difficult, he and his father have participated in dozens of events together in recent years.

“Now we just make up for lost time,” John said.

An EPIC Cal Poly Summer Camp

Jul 31, 2018


 

Middle school and high school students interested in engineering are getting a close-up look at what it would be like to study at Cal Poly through EPIC (Engineering Possibilities in College), a series of four week-long camps held on campus.

Middle school and high school students interested in engineering are getting a close-up look at what it would be like to study at Cal Poly through EPIC (Engineering Possibilities in College), a series of four week-long camps held on campus.

EPIC, taught by Cal Poly professors, students, alumni and industry professionals, began in 2007 with 20 female middle and high school students. Today it welcomes over 640 participants, who experience Cal Poly’s Learn by Doing approach early.

While the program seeks to encourage female, first-generation and low-income students to become engineers, the camp is open to all students. Last week middle school students programmed games, built models of the heart, constructed robots, and tested water samples, among other things.

The next three weeks, EPIC will host high school students.

Check out our photo gallery featuring middle schoolers from around the state getting hands-on engineering experience:

Continue reading An EPIC Cal Poly Summer Camp...
Athlete Swarnijit Boyal on track

CENG Underdog Wins Athlete of the Year

Jul 31, 2018


Athlete of the Year winner Swarnijit Boyal

Even after getting rejected for a spot on Cal Poly’s running teams a second consecutive year, Swarnjit Boyal left the coach’s office thinking, “This isn’t the last you’ll hear from me.”

Fueled by hard work – measured in miles -- he was heard from in a big way this summer when he was named Cal Poly’s male athlete of the year.

“I’m proud for never giving up on my dream and believing in myself even if the odds were stacked against me to make the team,” said Boyal, who just completed his master’s degree in civil engineering with a focus on water resources.

The Yuba City resident was never even recruited to Cal Poly.

“My senior year of high school, my calculus teacher asked me what I wanted to major in, and I said engineering,” Boyal recalled. “And he recommended Cal Poly to me, being that he was a math major there.”

Knowing Cal Poly had a good cross country and track program, he ran hard the summer after his senior year of high school.

“It wasn’t enough, though, as Coach (Mark) Conover had a strong team, and I just wasn’t good enough to make it,” Boyal said.

Boyal left Conover disappointed but even more determined. He ran for the Cal Poly Distance Club, where Coach Armondo Siqueiros taught him the basics of being a good runner.

Meanwhile, he continued with his engineering studies.

“I love the variety and diversity engineering gives in my life by always having something different to solve or figure out,” he said. “Nothing is ever the same, and you’re always constantly learning.”

That desire to learn carried into his athletics. The following summer, he asked Conover what’d he’d need to do to make the team, and Conover’s answer was simple:

More mileage.

So Boyal ran. And ran and ran.

Yet, that September, Conover told him he still wasn’t ready.

“This crushed me,” Boyal said.

The following Monday, he took his frustrations out on the trails with the club. And he was so good, Siqueiros contacted Conover. And then Conover reached out to Boyal.

“Swarnjit definitely had to pay his dues and earn a roster spot,” Conover said. “But when he looked me in the eyes and said, ‘Coach, I can beat the guys on your team,’ I knew he had the passion, vision, and desire to do what it takes to be highly competitive at the Division 1 level.”

Athlete Swarnijit Boyal Wins Athlete Swarnijit Boyal with trophy

After making the team, Boyal made sacrifices – skipping vacations, time with friends and loved ones – to dedicate to running.

“He finds pure joy in running and uses it to balance his other academic and work commitments,” Conover said. “He epitomizes the ‘find a way’ motto, whereby one must decide how to live a life of balance while training to a maximum level.”

As a result of his regiment, Conover said, Boyal did get better, culminating this year, when he was named Big West Athlete of the Week three times en route to being selected for the conference’s Men’s Track Athlete of the Year Award.

His cross country highlights include finishing 10th at the NCAA West Region qualifier in Seattle and leading the Mustangs to the Big West Conference championship, earning second place individually, at UC Riverside.

In track, Boyal became the Big West’s first back-to-back champion for the 10,000 meters since Utah State’s Toby Conley in 1995 and 1996. He moved to No. 5 in school history for the distance while coming in second place in the Elite Invitational section of the event at the Stanford Invitational, ranking No. 22 nationally.

Now that he has graduated, Boyal plans to stay in San Luis Obispo, where he works for Monsoon Consultants, a water resource and hydrology firm. And he plans to continue running, competing for HOKA ONE ONE Aggies, an Olympic development team based in San Luis Obispo.

“I can’t just be doing work, work, work all day,” Boyal said. “I need to balance it out. After a busy day, or if I have any stress with school, I love to just lace my shoes on, clear anything on my mind by hitting the trails and taking on the views and just releasing myself by going for a run.”

Student Selynna Sun working on her laptop

Student Plans to Revolutionize Dyslexia Therapy

Jul 31, 2018


Selynna Sun works on her laptop during VHacks, held at the Vatican last March.

Selynna Sun was at the Vatican last March when Pope Francis spoke about welcoming and nurturing people with learning disabilities.

And that’s when Sun and her international team of fellow computer science students came up with the idea for an app that would help people with dyslexia.

“Dyslexia is one of the more prominent disabilities, and we wanted to build something that could disrupt and revolutionize current dyslexia treatments,” said Sun, from Mountain View.

Their app, designed to help dyslexic children read, is the first to combine mixed reality, gamification and cutting-edge scientific research into a tool that is immediately transferable, improvement-focused and fun.

Named Zelixa, the app led Sun to Seattle last week, where her team was one of 49 finalists – in a pool out 40,000 students that applied -- in the Microsoft Imagine Cup World Finals. The team had previously finished 6th at the U.S. Finals.

Recently included as one of Cal Poly’s Most Influential Women by the Women in Business Wire, Sun has had a significant impact on Cal Poly’s tech community. SLO Hacks, which she co-founded, brings students from all over California to Cal Poly. And their next big event – a 36-hour hackathon in February – is expected to draw 500 students.

Selynna Sun speaks during the opening ceremony of Bitcamp, a 1,200-student hackathon at the University of Maryland.

While the word “hacking” conjures images of cybercriminals, those who attend hackathons form teams around a problem or idea and collaboratively code a unique solution from scratch. Those solutions can take the form of a website, mobile app or a robot.

“I’ve been attending hackathons since my sophomore year of high school and organizing them since my senior year,” Sun said.

When she began at Cal Poly, however, there was no hackathon – and no one was willing to travel elsewhere to get to any. So she helped create SLO Hacks.

“I hoped that by bringing a large hackathon to Cal Poly, people at SLO could experience what the power of a real hacker community is like and that I’d be able to find students willing to travel to other parts of the U.S. and world to attend these events,” she said.

It was that zest for benevolent hacking that led Sun and her team to Italy, where the Vatican hosted a 36-hour hackathon called VHacks. VHacks was not a religious event, though the Catholic Church did note three problems it believes need solutions: social inclusion, interfaith dialogue and assistance for migrants and refugees.

“I’m glad the Vatican is starting to realize the power of students and technology, and since they focus on a lot of social good missions, inviting students to build game-changing ideas and products is a smart move,” Sun said.

And it was there that Zelixa came about.

Selynna Sun juggling Selynna Sun participates in a juggling challenge at FireCode Hack, a hackathon hosted by Workday and her club, SLO Hacks.

While at the Vatican, Sun and her team – one student from Harvard, others from Germany, London and Manchester – brainstormed their idea in between visits to landmarks and eateries (“Couldn’t eat American pizza the same after that.”)

Optimized for the Hololens, a holographic computer and head-mounted display, Zelixa (named for how people with dyslexia might view the word “dyslexia”) combines three different therapies: phonological, morphological and visual. Microsoft technologies will help customize therapies.

“Dyslexia therapies are monopolized by a few big players in the industry, which enables inflated pricing and a lack of urgency to modernize,” Sun said. “Zelixa is disrupting all of that – we’re bringing our approach to augmented reality, making it more accessible, more cheap and more modernized.”

After college, Sun hopes to start out as a software engineer before leading a startup and eventually becoming an executive at a well-performing company. That startup could involve Zelixa, which she hopes to pilot at elementary schools before releasing to the public.

“I really hope it will eventually change people’s lives,” she said.

High school student Marlen Reyes, sands a box that will become a game used in a fundraiser for the Imagination Park.

A Helping Hand at Cal Poly CENG

Jul 17, 2018


Marlen Reyes, a high school student from Santa Maria, sands a box that will become a game used in a fundraiser for the Imagination Park. Reyes is participating in Upward Bound, a 6-week program at Cal Poly that prepares kids for college.

 

High school students in the Upward Bound program sanded, sawed and painted at the Bonderson last week, creating games for Jack’s Helping Hand, a charity that assists children with disabilities.

The federally-funded Upward Bound provides support for low-income, first generation college-bound students. Through the program, students spend six weeks at a residential summer academy at Cal Poly.

“The students in our program work with us year-round and must maintain active participation to be eligible for Summer Academy,” said Melissa Giddens, the Upward Bound program coordinator. “Each student is taking both a math and science class that is meant to prepare them for their courses during the coming school year.”

 

Maritza Reyes cuts as piece of pipe as Stefano Rincon holds it in place. The two high school students from Santa Maria are building pieces for a dunk tank during Upward Bound, a 6-week program at Cal Poly that prepares kids for college.

 

Instructors, teaching assistants and residential staff at Upward Bound are all current or recent Cal Poly students. While here, Upward Bound participants work on a project to create a product or solution for a local organization. This year, the organizations included One Cool Earth, Cal Poly MOST Program, the Morro Bay National Estuary Program and Jack’s Helping Hand.

Several students built games for the Imagination Park Fall Classic, a fundraiser put on by Jack’s Helping Hand in September. The fundraiser supports a unique park in Nipomo allowing disabled children play alongside children without disabilities.

Continue reading A Helping Hand at Cal Poly CENG...
Retiring Cal Poly Aerospace Engineering Professor Jordi Puig-Suari

Aerospace Pioneer Retires from Cal Poly to Sail the World

Jul 12, 2018


 

Jordi Puig-Suari holds one of his CubeSats. When he and then-Stanford professor Bob Twiggs created the mini-satellites, it was purely for educational reasons, Puig-Suari said. Since then, more than 2,000 have been launched into space.

 

When he gazes at the night sky from his 50-foot sailboat, Jordi Puig-Suari will see spectacular displays of moon and stars. But, he knows, there’s more up there – unseen by the naked eye.

“I’m really happy that there are satellites up there that help me navigate,” he said. “GPS and all that. I’m very conscious of the stuff that’s up there that I’m using all the time.”

Having co-created CubeSat technology, satellites are a major part of Puig-Suari’s legacy at Cal Poly. But while his work made him a respected pioneer in aerospace research, Puig-Suari retired early so he could explore the planet in a different way.

“We’re starting to hear friends who are older saying, ‘Oh, my back is bugging me’ or ‘My knee is doing this,’ ” Puig-Suari said. “And it’s like, ‘How much longer will we be in a position to do this?’ So we’re sort of retiring in the middle instead of retiring at the end because we want to be good enough to do this for a few years.”

Puig-Suari is traveling the world with his wife and 15-year-old son. He and his family will launch their boat, Lola, from the Mediterranean Sea. From there, they will cross the Atlantic, then pass through the Panama Canal to reach the Pacific, headed toward the Indian Ocean. On the final leg, they will sail around South Africa to reach their final destination, the Caribbean.

But they plan to be flexible, stopping several times, especially if bad weather is in the forecast.

“The worst thing you can do is have a schedule,” he said. “Because then you make bad decisions. That’s one reason to retire — we want to do it and not have any pressure.”

While Puig-Suari is focused on the epic journey ahead, he is best known for creating a path to space for students, private companies and government agencies worldwide. But as a child growing up in Barcelona, Spain, he hadn’t even considered a career in aerospace.

“Where I grew up that wasn’t even something you thought about,” he said. “You’d see airplanes at the airport, but space was, like -- NASA does that kind of stuff. And they’re all rocket scientists.”

He went to Purdue University, known producing astronauts. And in 1998, he landed at Cal Poly, teaching aerospace engineering.

While at Cal Poly, he teamed with then-Stanford professor Bob Twiggs to develop the CubeSat standard. Their idea was simple: Create small satellites (4-inch cubes) and capsules that could hitch a ride as secondary payloads aboard government and commercial space launches.

Cal Poly's Jordi Puig-Suari gives Major General Stephen Whiting, Vandenberg Air Force Base commander, a tour of the CubeSat Lab.

 

While others had considered the idea of mini-satellites, Puig-Suari said, no one had pursued it.

“The industry was in low-risk tolerance mode,” he said. “You couldn’t build things that failed.”

He and Twiggs didn’t have many expectations for the CubeSats — other than affording students an opportunity to launch things into space.

“It was purely an educational activity, so a lot of people said, ‘You’re not going to do anything with these — they’re stupid.’” he said. “They were toys that could do no science.”

Yet, that’s what made it so easy to forge ahead. With no funding from companies, they didn’t have to cater to anyone’s demands. “We were going to teach students — that’s all we cared about. So we were going forward with no risks, and people didn’t get that.”

Fortunately, he said, the timing was right — sophisticated technology was coming in smaller packages, like cellphones. So Cal Poly students did create meaningful satellites. They also built the technology that could deploy satellites created by other universities.

Initially, they couldn’t find American companies to help them launch the satellites, so they turned to Russia, where they could launch for $40,000 per cube. For the initial launch, a dozen other universities joined Cal Poly.

Unfortunately, the Russian rocket crashed.

“Which was very disappointing,” Puig-Suari said. “But it had a tremendous PR impact because all these people said, ‘Why are the universities going to Russia to launch satellites? We can launch them.’ Everybody kind of saw it as an embarrassment that we were going to Russia.”

Jori Puig-Suari, who pioneered the CubeSat program at Cal Poly, retired early so he could sail around the world with his wife and 15-year-old son.

 

Soon, Cal Poly was leading launches in America – first for itself and other universities, then for corporations and government agencies.

“Cal Poly played a key role in making sure these things launched,” Puig-Suari said. “For a long time, we were the only game in town as far as putting things in space.”

Eventually, even high schools – and, in some cases, middle schools – were launching mini-satellites into space.

In all, Puig-Suari was involved in grants totaling over $20 million. And when he looks into space from his sailboat, he can think about the 2,000 CubeSats that have been launched since he and Twiggs created the CubeSat standard. That includes CubeSats NASA launched in May on a mission to Mars.

“We were out in left field,” he said. “Crazy ideas become brilliant when they work. But you need to try it and see if they work.”

Failure is an important part of the discovery process, he said. But not something you want to encounter on a sailing adventure.

Luckily, he’ll use technology created by others to avoid setbacks.

“You can get weather info and know when things are good or bad,” he said. “And, basically, you can dial in the amount of adventure you want. We’re in the Small Adventure category.”

 

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