Junior Enterprise EPFL wins award for its avalanche safety project

© Junior entreprise EPFL

© Junior entreprise EPFL

At the annual conference of the Confederation of European Junior Enterprises, EPFL’s young entrepreneurs won the award for the most innovative project in Europe. The association oversaw the development of a "safety dropping system" to be mounted on a drone to artificially trigger avalanches.

Junior Enterprise EPFL has come up with a secure and cost-effective approach to lowering the risk of avalanches. Its "safety dropping system" easily attachable to a drone, weighs only 5 kg yet can deliver a payload of up to 20 kg. What’s more, it is capable of operating below -20° Celsius, and it costs less than 10,000 francs to produce. This system earned the EPFL students the award for the most innovative project in Europe at the annual conference of the Confederation of European Junior Enterprises. This year, the projects were judged by IBM.

Junior enterprises are university associations that connect students with both companies and individuals in need of their expertise. "We assign the jobs we receive to the most highly qualified students, and then we provide project oversight," says Astrid Hochart, a microengineering student who sits on the board of Junior Enterprise EPFL.

Junior Enterprise EPFL’s third core activity, after software services and translations, is prototyping - and its latest major achievement in this area is its "safety dropping system" attachable to a drone. The client, whose name cannot be revealed for confidentiality reasons, asked the students to develop a system to preemptively trigger avalanches that pose a risk to skiers. Unlike existing, manual avalanche-control methods, the drone can be operated safely and accurately from afar - even in hard-to-reach spots.

Encrypted signal

To develop the "safety dropping system", Junior Enterprise EPFL selected two EPFL microengineering students. Hugo Meyer developed the mechanical system, while Alaa Maghrabi focused on the electronics. These two students have now gone on to work for Bosch and Logitech.

"I learned a lot from managing this cross-disciplinary project, where we really had to think outside the box in so many ways," says Camille Daganaud the vice president of Junior Enterprise EPF in charge of the project and a student in materials science and engineering. And if the technical challenges were not enough, the students also had to take into account commercial considerations, since the client plans to market this system. But they were able to draw on the advice of various professors, and they had access to both the mechanical workshops and experts at EPFL’s Discovery Learning Labs.

The payload-release mechanism, made primarily from lightweight carbon fiber, has its own battery and is activated by remote control. "We use an encrypted signal, to ensure maximum security, and the drone operator must be less than a kilometer away and maintain a direct line of sight. What’s more, the clips holding the explosive are reinforced, to avoid accidental release," adds Daganaud. The client has received the go-ahead to test the prototype in Switzerland and hopes to bring it to market in the winter of 2020.