Curiosity leads engineering students to redesign Pulley Tower systems

Engineering students Aaron Pittenger (left), Brandon Withrow (right) and Brian Breitsch (not pictured) redesigned the Pulley Tower electronic control systems.

Engineering students Aaron Pittenger (left), Brandon Withrow (right) and Brian Breitsch (not pictured) redesigned the Pulley Tower electronic control systems (photo by Elizabeth Runyon).

Like other Miami students, Aaron Pittenger wondered about the music he heard when he walked around campus. During a communications class, he went to the Pulley Tower and met then-carillonneur Randy Runyon, professor of French and Italian. Visiting Runyon at the carillon later during Sunday recitals, Pittenger learned that systems running the music were obsolete and cumbersome to use.

Pittenger thought there was a better way to control the system’s electronics. Through his senior electrical engineering capstone project, he worked on a electronic control redesign with Brandon Withrow, senior electrical engineering major and computer science engineering minor, and Brian Breitsch, junior computer engineering major. They were advised by Peter Jamieson, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering.

The Pulley Tower, installed in 2001 by The Verdin Company, houses a 50-bell carillon system and four large clock faces. Over the years, the system failed at an increasing rate and maintenance and repairs were becoming expensive. “Three main problems motivated a redesign of the control system,” Pittenger explained. “Instability, difficulty of use and the need to manually resync the clock faces.”

The new system revolves around a central desktop computer that controls hardware peripherals. “This allows for remote and local maintenance,” Pittenger said, “and sets the foundation for the Pulley Tower to be a more interactive part of the Miami campus.”

Improvements include two new keyboards, wiring, microphones, speakers, amplifiers and a Wi-Fi link for off-site monitoring. The clocks can be set from the keyboard. “Previously someone had to climb up in the tower and set those manually,” Withrow said. A new monitor automatically sends an email message to physical facilities in the event of problems.

“We first built a working prototype in our lab,” said Pittenger, who admitted the music generated by it drove many of his colleagues crazy.

The students secured project funding through several sources, including physical facilities and the office of the president, as well as a variety of other university grants. Hardware and software were installed with help from IT services and physical facilities.

"Projects like this allow students to go far beyond the classroom and deal with real-world designs, administration, fundraising and relating with people,” Jamieson said. “Aaron, Brandon and Brian met this challenge head-on and succeeded while I sat in the background wondering what our bailout plan was the entire time."

Pittenger added that many people contributed time and labor. The student team especially thanks Steve Taylor, electrical engineering graduate student, and physical facilities employees Mike Creager, project manager of construction; Brian Schwegman, assistant manager trades shop; and Dwayne Hall and Sy Revelee, both master trades specialists. “Anytime we needed anything they just jumped and were right there,” Pittenger said.

Written by Elizabeth Runyon, guest writer, and Susan Meikle, University News and Communications,