UC Merced's AgTech Engineering Students Showcase Innovations

At the university's Innovate to Grow event, students showed off their prototypes for machinery and smartphone apps.

by Thaddeus Miller, Merced Sun-Star / May 16, 2016 0

(TNS) — Whether it was picking tomatoes, loading chickens, treating drinking water or some other project, engineering students showed off their ideas to those ends during the annual UC Merced Innovate to Grow on Friday.

Engineering students gather in a school gym every year just before graduation to show off prototypes for machinery or smartphone apps, often for agricultural purposes but also for other industries.

Stephen Chan, 22, stood near a series of conveyor belts he said were a one-fifth replica of equipment that would make farm labor easier on the backs and knees of tomato pickers. The mechanical engineering student from Modesto and his team worked with Red Rooster of Firebaugh to develop a device that would be gentle on the tomatoes.

The produce headed to store shelves differs from those set to be squished into ketchup. “It has to look good,” he said.

Merced County’s tomatoes are the sixth-largest moneymaker in the agriculture industry, according to the 2014 crop report.

The main goal is to take it out faster and make a profit as well.

Diego Trejo, 23, of Lodi, on his engineering project

The students wear more formal attire during the event, because they’re essentially giving business presentations.

One of the tie-clad students was Diego Trejo, 23, of Lodi. His team was developing a way to clear fire hazards from the Stanislaus National Forest, which makes up about 80 percent of Tuolumne County.

Working with the Tuolumne County Economic Development Authority, the students were looking at better ways to clear byproducts of the logging industry. As trees are processed, the leftover shavings begin to pile up and can be a fire hazard, Trejo said.

“The main goal is to take it out faster and make a profit as well,” he said.

The full-fledged version of the team’s prototype would dry about 2,200 pounds of mulch and compact it within an hour, much faster than the current system. The team said that would allow for more mulch to be cleared faster, which would be of particular interest to a region damaged by 2013’s Rim Fire, the biggest blaze in the Sierra Nevada’s recorded history, burning across 250,000 acres in the Stanislaus National Forest, Yosemite National Park and private land.

The projects have the potential to go to market or for further development in UC Merced’s Venture Lab, a business incubator. Peter Schuerman, associate vice chancellor for research and economic development and director of the lab, has said the lab is a place students go to figure out if their ideas can make money.

These programs are a showcase for innovations that promise a better future. Through the Venture Lab, we use entrepreneurship to deliver on that promise.

Peter Schuerman, associate vice chancellor for research and economic development and director of the Venture Lab

“These programs are a showcase for innovations that promise a better future,” he said in a news release. “Through the Venture Lab, we use entrepreneurship to deliver on that promise.”

A few dozen teams developed phone apps that have functions for anything from organizing a carpool to telling a person if he or she has good posture.

Another presenter in the gym, Ranjit Chahal, said his team worked with Pitman Family Farms of Sanger to make moving chickens safer for the birds and for workers. The 24-year-old Fresno native said a series of conveyor belts would load chickens into the 15-foot-tall series of cages used to transport them.

The belts would cut the time it takes to load the animals by three-quarters, he said, and reduce the amount the birds have to be handled.

“Right now the problem is they got to grab them and put them into a certain place, which is laborious,” he said. “It takes a lot of time. It’s a waste of money.”

©2016 the Merced Sun-Star (Merced, Calif.), Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.