Students taking part in EPFL’s interdisciplinary projects have had to work from home to limit the spread of COVID-19. Despite this challenge, they remain optimistic.
EPFL’s interdisciplinary projects give students from a variety of fields an opportunity to collaborate on real-world problem-solving. This year, project coordinators have been working closely with student teams to adapt their project plans to the constraints posed by COVID-19.
When the campus closed in response to the coronavirus outbreak, the six student teams competing in the robotics competition were still drafting specifications for a new type of cleaning robot. "Everything came to a halt from one day to the next," says Alessandro Crespi, a research assistant at EPFL’s Biorobotics Laboratory and the competition’s coordinator. "What motivates the students is being able to physically build a robot. That’s not something you can do with a simulator," he adds. That competition - like EPFL’s Lab-in-a-Tube contest - has been postponed until the fall semester. Students seem to be on board with this decision, as they’ve all re-upped.
"In the meantime, the project coordinators have been giving online workshops so that students can acquire the necessary skills to meet challenges they will face in their professional careers," says Julien Delisle, the interdisciplinary project coordinator.
Remote design presentations
Several student events scheduled for this summer have been shifted online, including the SensUs competition. This year’s challenge for the student teams is to develop biosensors for treating epilepsy. Members of EPFL’s team, named Helvet’Sens, have been working remotely on theoretical design aspects - and some are even running tests at home. "We’re kind of in DIY mode," says Aurélie Ducrot, a life sciences engineering student. In response to current events, the team is hard at work on a biosensor that can be applied to other molecules. "For example, we could conduct serological testing to detect the presence of coronavirus antibodies in blood," says Maxime Marchionno, a microengineering student. He adds: "It’s a big engineering challenge that requires other skills as well. Still, there’s a lot of value in what we’re doing - we’ve been able to move forward on the business aspect through research and discussions with industry professionals. But for the physical part of the design work, which was supposed to take place this summer, things are a little less clear-cut, but we’re really hoping to return to campus."
In 2018, eight EPFL students were awarded the technical prize at the international SensUs competition.
Helvet’Sens will therefore present its project from Switzerland, as will bioengineering students taking part in the iGEM (International Genetically Engineered Machine) worldwide synthetic biology competition. "It was a challenge to stay fully motivated during lockdown," says Laura Iacobucci, a chemistry and chemical engineering student, and Harshdeep Harshdeep, who is studying communications systems. "But we supported each other and got through it." Even though they weren’t able to use the lab to pursue their project and learn the basics of synthetic biology, they kept their spirits up. She adds: "Lockdown forced us to probe all aspects of our proposed solution, including some that were still changing and that could be tested at home."
Competitions provide opportunities for students to speak directly with industry experts and to gain a foothold in the world of startups. This is a real loss for participants, who are now waiting to see whether an online networking option is planned.
While these projects are moving forward, plants are also thriving. This is the positive takeaway of Victoria Letertre, a systems engineering student who’s also president of the GrowBotHub student association. Her team is developing a robot that grows and harvests plants without human intervention and is intended for use in extreme environments. This project will be presented online in July at the second edition of IGLUNA.
Behind schedule or ahead of time?
Due to postponed or canceled competitions, EPFL Racing Team will not make the rounds of European racetracks, Swiss Solar Boat will not sail the Mediterranean and the China Hardware Innovation Camp (CHIC) group won’t be travelling to China. In addition, the New Mexico desert will not host the Spaceport America Cup, in which EPFL Rocket Team was planning to compete. Their rocket was slated for completion and a test launch in April. Instead, the team has been making progress on some rocket parts from home, and has been promised a July slot for a launch at a Swiss military base.
EPFL Racing Team has decided against building its prototype. "We plan to use the resources we have to further enhance our racecar design for next year," says team leader Pierre Georges. This sentiment is shared by the Swiss Solar Boat team, except that their boat’s assembly was under way when the campus went into lockdown. "We had just received parts from the shipyard," says Adrien Peltier, the committee president. "We changed our working method to focus on design aspects, which turned out well, because now the project is much more advanced." Students can carry out simulations from home thanks to the efforts of Julien Delisle and Alessandro Crespi, who provided remote access to computers powerful enough for this type of work.
EPFL Racing Team competed in the Formula Student co mpetition for the first time last year.
Pierre Georges remains optimistic: "We’ll be pretty much ready to build our racecar in September, if we’re allowed back on campus by then. The testing period on the racetrack will just have to be a lot longer than normal." And as regards the asymmetrical Swiss Boat built by Adrien Peltier and his 60 "colleagues," it hopefully will be launched in September for fine-tuning. The team will then collect as much performance data as possible and make any necessary adjustments before the 2021 Monaco Solar & Energy Boat Challenge.
Less impact on longer-term projects
The 40 or so SP80 alumni and students still hope to set a new world sailing speed record in 2022. Projects have been revamped so they can be worked on remotely, students will earn credits as planned, and the team has even used lockdown to catch up on some technical dimensions. "When activity partially resumes in early May, I’ll be able to return to campus along with a few other team members," says project manager Mayeul van den Broek. "We used our downtime to move forward on building a prototype and providing feedback to students." For van den Broek, the pandemic created significant sponsoring challenges: "Because a number of things can be accomplished in-house, we have the resources we need to keep going until early 2021. However, we need to source the funds necessary to begin building the boat in April/May 2021."
Nicolas Martinod, vice president of the EPFL Spacecraft Team association, considers his team one of the lucky ones. "We’ve started in on the initial construction phase for our satellite, which is design-oriented and can be done remotely," he says. "All we needed to do was adapt our recruitment procedure for next year’s team, but everything went well because we received some 40 applications."
Finally, the Bal’eclectic project - which enables students to explore new technologies in the cultural field - has merely been postponed. The team’s app for assessing festival-goer flows and tracking emotional responses will be ready for field testing during the 2021 edition of the Balélec music festival.
A good time for new initiatives
A new initiative by students from EPFL Rocket Team expands on what was originally planned. "In a spirit of outreach, we contacted European teams to find out how they were handling the situation, and what opportunities there were on their end for a European-scale launch," says Pierre Groslambert, a microengineering student. Even if no date has been set, this initiative seems to have gotten off to a good start, since they are dialoguing with around 30 teams and with space agencies from various countries to find a launch site. Baptiste De Christen, who is studying mechanical engineering, says, "All this is done in the hopes of creating a European competition."
Launch of EPFL Rocket Team’s Eiger Rocket during the Spaceport America Cup 2019.
Many students have used the lockdown to think up new project ideas, and a large number of proposals have landed on Delisle’s desk. "It’s a good sign because some of the projects involve students from fields that have been underrepresented," he says. Onward and upward!