Students walk to class in sub-zero temperatures at Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. (AP Photo/Josh Reynolds)
Brains vs. blizzards: Harvard students take on snow removal
February 02, 2016
Winter is bearing down anew. And Harvard University students have been engineering new ways to deal with it.
Eighteen juniors representing several engineering disciplines in professor David Mooney's problem-solving and design class spent the fall semester inventing a robotic remote-control rooftop snowblower. They also created a superheated icicle cutter and a freeze-resistant doormat.
The projects grew out of meetings with the university's Facilities Maintenance Operations department. It is responsible for clearing snow from the 5,000-acre campus. And it was particularly challenged last winter. That is when the Boston area got more than 9 feet of snow. Harvard shut down several times. It was the first time campus closed since the infamous Blizzard of '78.
"Don't get me wrong. FMO did an impressive job last winter," electrical engineering major Peyton Fine said. "But we wanted to somehow improve their operations. We wanted to make it easier to get around campus safely. And keep workers safe."
A major problem is clearing snow off Harvard's many old and flat-roofed buildings. The main Cambridge/Boston campus has about 500 buildings.
The students retrofitted a commercial snowblower. It can be controlled by using a modified video game control pad. It can also be operated remotely, even from inside a nice, warm office. That eliminates the need for workers to spend time on slippery rooftops. There, they risk falling.
Another potential hazard for workers is clearing icicles off eaves. The students' research found that about 150 people a year are killed in the U.S. trying to clear snow and icicles off rooftops.
For that problem, the students came up with a special device. It resembles a roof rake. It has a long handle. It is topped with a Y-shaped head that holds a super-heated wire. The device can quickly slice through the thickest of icicles. Meanwhile, the operator stands on firm ground.
The students also developed a durable freeze-resistant hydrogel mat. The mat can keep doorways and steps ice free.
The class was one of the most practical junior bioengineering major Cassie Lowell has taken.
"It's a unique class in the sense is that we're given a lot of freedom," she said. "It was a really hands-on, real-world experience."
The students and Mooney stress that all their inventions are prototypes. They won't be deployed on campus this winter. But some of the students plan to keep working on them. The goal is to one day make them commercially available.
Fine said he'd love to walk into a hardware store in the future and see the items for sale.
"Just like someone has a leaf blower in their garage, we'd love to see someone have an icicle cutter in the garage one day," he said.
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CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why are these problems more relevant for Harvard students than students at the University of Miami?
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