Hovercraft project brings together creativity and curriculum for Design Manufacturing Engineering Technology students

Work that feels like play. Often cited as a recipe for career satisfaction, it’s a
fitting description for a recent end of term project undertaken by students in Saskatchewan
Polytechnic’s Design Manufacturing Engineering Technician (DMET) program. Twelve students
in the program’s production management class wrapped up their term by creating small,
working hovercrafts, then got the chance to test them in the gymnasium on the Saskatoon
main campus.

Leon Lipoth, the instructor who taught the class, explains that the project is an
intensive six-week group assignment that lets students put into practice much of their
learning from previous terms, including programming, basic electronics and use of
specialized equipment such as a waterjet and 3D printer.

This year’s class was divided into three teams of four students who worked together
to build the hovercrafts as team green, team blue and team red. The groups chose finishes
for their final products and some came up with add-on capability features that made
each craft unique.

The two-part project began with the building of the hovercraft’s remote control, which
comes as a printed circuit board with roughly 300 components the students need to
solder into place. Key to the controller’s function is a tiny component called an
Arduino Nano. “Arduinos are a maker’s choice for doing physical computing,” says Lipoth.
“They’re meant for building things that take actions based on their environment—robots,
temperature sensors, moisture sensors—any kind of projects that involve sensing real-world
parameters. Our students learn how to program them in their first year in a mechatronics
class and this project allows them to put that knowledge to actual use.”

Besides the Arduino Nano, the remote control has an accelerometer, which lets the
user determine axes and movement to transmit to the Arduino. There are also two joysticks,
two potentiometers, toggle switches and push buttons. “The first part of the journey
is to build the board up,” explains Lipoth, who designed the board and populated it
with components for the students to work on.

The hovercraft itself, which is about the size of a shoe box, is built from components
the students produce in Sask Polytech’s Research, Additive Manufacturing and Prototyping
(RAMP) lab. A small brushless motor sits inside the craft’s shell at the back, and
the front has a propellor to give it thrust to move forward. A similar motor and propellor
gives it thrust that pushes air down into a flexible apron underneath, which is what
allows the hovercraft to ride on a cushion of air. The basic design for the hovercraft
is canned, but students create the shell using a 3D printer then have to come up with
their own design for a harness to run the wires and make it all fit along with the

For a project to pass muster, it must meet the minimum expectation that the hovercraft
works and that the remote control can be used to operate it. “Building the hovercraft
and making it their own is fun, but the project is really about constructing and programming
the remote control, which populates the board and allows you to move the hovercraft,”
says Lipoth.

The instructor added an optional extra challenge to the project to give students who
complete their remote control quickly higher-level learning opportunities—and more
fun. “I give them a design I know will work, but I tell them to build it and then
add some kind of custom function or feature. Some groups have time to add more than
one and it’s exciting to see what they come up with.”

“This was the first bigger group project we’ve done, and our first chance to use some
creative license, too” says Jack Sanderson, one of the students on team red. “My group
collaborated on ideas and worked well together with our different skills sets. I have
the strongest programming skills so I took the lead on that. We all worked together
to decide what features to add to our craft. My group added an LCD license plate and
an ultrasonic sensor to help it avoid objects it gets close to, which is something
we never learned in class. We had enough knowledge from a previous class in the program
to know how to figure these things out, so we were able to take the ideas and run
with them.”

“The best part of the additions students make to their hovercrafts is that they learn
on the job,” agrees Lipoth. “They’ve got the basics but they need to go a step further
to figure out how to make a new component or function work. It’s an exciting way to
learn and the students are highly motivated. I never taught them how to use a liquid
crystal display in class as part of their curriculum, for example. Instead, I let
them know what components were available and where to find examples and they taught
themselves. You engage them on their own to figure things out.”

All the controls on the remote aren’t required to operate the hovercraft, which leaves
a second joystick, potentiometer, accelerometer and toggle switches that the students
can choose to program to control additional functions. Team green embedded RGB LED
lights in the bottom so they could light up the apron with different colours using
a radio signal, chosen by one of the potentiometers on the remote control. That group
also made the accelerometer drive the hovercraft so tilting the remote would control
how it moved.

Ann Quimado, a team green student with strong time and project management skills,
says her team chose features they felt were feasible considering the timeline. “We
wanted to make our hovercraft look better, and our lead programmer, Jackson, thought
an aesthetic feature like LED lights was something we could accomplish.”

“Our groups were well balanced in terms of strengths,” adds Quimado. “We had a strong
programmer, which is an area I’m not yet as comfortable with, and a student who had
previous experience with manufacturing, and also someone who was good at assembly
and electronics. We were a diverse group and that worked well.”

Early this January, the twelve students and Lipoth gathered in the gymnasium on the
Saskatoon main campus to launch their finished hovercrafts as a final demonstration,
inviting guests to see the hovercrafts in action. Two groups had used the same radio
frequency and since the controllers’ range is about one kilometre it was quickly determined
that their crafts couldn’t run at the same time. Speeds get up to about the pace of
a run, and parts can come flying off if they aren’t attached properly. “I initially
envisioned a race, but didn’t want it to end up being a crash-up derby,” says Lipoth.
“The day became more of a demonstration, but it was still exciting.”

All of the remote controls and hovercrafts worked, but team blue had the satisfaction
of being the only team to build a hovercraft that operated without a hitch. Tyson
Church, who was lead coder for the team says his group had hoped to build and additional
feature that would help stabilize their craft but ended up spending their time getting
everything to operate correctly. “It was satisfying to see something work that I helped
to code,” he says.

Students will soon be putting their skills to use in the real world in a variety of
sectors including agriculture, mining, technology and more. “Employers in this field
currently can’t find enough people to hire. We see companies offering students jobs
months before graduation,” says Lipoth. “DMET students are well set up for a career
in engineering technology.”

Church, who came to the DMET program right out of high school isn’t sure where he
wants to work after graduating but says applied research opportunities are of interest
to him. “I considered going the university engineering degree route but I was more
interested in hands-on engineering. I enjoyed this project because it really was start-to-finish—everything
from design, to manufacturing to programming. Applied research could give me a similar
chance to see things through from concept to product.”

As Lipoth reviewed and graded the hovercrafts he reflected on the term project. “The
students clearly enjoyed this. I thought the whole project was fun, too—I enjoyed
building the board and walking them through it. I always try to make in-class experiences
have some fun component. When learning is enjoyable it’s more rewarding.”


For more information about Sask Polytech’s Design Engineering Manufacturing Technology
program, visit our website: Design and Manufacturing Engineering Technology – Diploma (saskpolytech.ca)

Hovercraft building

Published February 2023.


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