Most Yale students are told to shoot for the stars, but electrical engineering student Andrew Reardon ’21 is taking the saying literally.

The NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium awarded Reardon $5,000 to mitigate the dangers of spacewalks. To accomplish this, Reardon will design a system of wearable sensors that will allow astronauts to control an external robotic arm, decreasing the need for them to leave their spacecraft.

“I had the idea to come up with a sleeve that you could put on — a shirt essentially — and with every motion you make, a [robotic arm] will mimic what you do,” said Reardon. “I’m trying to make as intuitive a controller as possible, and the human arm is possibly the most intuitive controller because anyone can understand how to move their own arm.”

Reardon’s project stems from research within mechanical engineering and material sciences professor Rebecca Kramer-Bottiglio’s lab. Their research involves soft, responsive sensors that can be used in a number of different settings, including space.

“Our lab looks at how soft and flexible materials can be used to improve the capabilities of robots,” said Dylan Shah GRD ’23, a doctoral student in Kramer-Bottiglio’s Lab. “These materials can be used to make multi-purpose grippers for grasping and manipulation tasks, or for active, wearable garments that can provide user feedback or sense the pose of an arm — where the idea for Andrew’s project came from.”

Reardon joined Kramer-Bottiglio’s lab in August 2018 and has worked on a number of projects within the lab. Both Reardon and Shah highlighted the importance of using Reardon’s electrical engineering skills within a mechanical engineering lab.

“I really got into circuit board design in the spring of 2019 but, at that time, I was familiarizing myself with the stress sensors that had been previously developed [in the lab],” Reardon said. “I would listen in on the work of grad students in the lab, and eventually I saw the connection when I was thinking about proposals for this grant.”

Shah said having undergraduates work in the lab is important to its research because their willingness to learn new skills brings a fresh perspective to the space. Reardon was particularly eager to highlight how his interactions with Kramer-Bottiglio and the graduate students in the lab shaped his proposal.

“This lab has an incredible culture that supports undergrads, which is something that is really unique. It was great to feel that professor Kramer, Dylan Shah and Adam [Bilodeau] were all there to support me, along every step of the way, in this proposal process,” Reardon said. “Encouraging me to do something like this was really a big deal.”

Reardon will research his proposal in the roughly 10 hours he spends in Kramer-Bottiglio’s lab each week. He hopes to write a publishable paper on his proposal by May 2020.

Reardon is one of many Yale students to benefit from NASA Connecticut Space Consortium Grants since the organization’s creation in 1991. Previous winner Ian Denzer ’21 was awarded a grant to prototype an ornithopter — a machine that flies using flapping wings — with the Yale Undergraduate Aerospace Association.

“For my project in particular, the CT Space Grant was able to completely cover all of our expenses,” Denzer wrote the News in an email. “These types of hands-on engineering projects provide incredible outlets for applying the more theoretical concepts we typically learn in the classroom. The CT Space Grant has consistently rewarded well-organized projects by helping to remove funding as a barrier.”

Reardon hopes that undertaking his own research with this grant will allow him to gain experience that will better prepare him for a future in STEM. Shah, whose doctoral research is supported by a national NASA grant, encourages other Yale students to consider applying for funding for their research projects.

“The fellowship is open to a wide range of disciplines, and so, if students have projects they would like to pursue that are related to space technology, they definitely should find a lab doing something that is related. Most professors would probably be willing to work with students to write a proposal and to help them on their application.”

The NASA Connecticut Space Grant Consortium is hosting its annual Grants Expo on Nov. 1 at the New England Air Museum in East Granby, Connecticut. The event will be an opportunity for students to learn more about its fellowship and grant programs.

Kate Pundyk | kate.pundyk@yale.edu