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Michael Bell: Make Money, Have Fun, Save the World. Then Graduate College.

June 11, 2012

Bell profile 2
2012 Rose-Hulman grad, Michael Bell

What kind of bucket list does an incoming freshman make to end up with a stuff-of-legends college career like Michael Bell's? Perhaps Bell, a computer engineering and mechanical engineering major, has no need for lists. But if he did, here's how that bucket list would look as he graduated Rose-Hulman this spring:

  • Help defeat terrorism: worked to develop a smartphone application for troops in the field to view U.S. Unmanned Aerial Vehicle video feeds from iPhones and Androids ... (check)
  • Fight global warming: helped the first successful electric car company, Tesla Motors, develop and test superior battery packs ... (check)
  • Become a patented inventor: developed novel ways to protect batteries and was co-named on two patents for battery safety while at Tesla ... (check)
  • Become an entrepreneur: started successful companies that provided remote computer repair, distributed computer docking stations and manufactured/imported batteries ... (check)
  • Become a global citizen: travelled the world, nine countries on four continents ... (check)
  • Have high-flying fun: earned an FAA helicopter pilot's license (was the fastest in his class!) and played almost every intramural sport ... (check)
  • Be a better local citizen: designed a website that promotes tourism and the history of Terre Haute, Indiana ... (check)
  • Be true to my school: helped Rose-Hulman and the Office of Career Services to develop a campus-wide video display system that notifies students of upcoming student events and gives companies recruiting on campus an advertising opportunity. This also lowers carbon footprint by replacing paper posters ... (check)
  • Work internships at America's coolest technology employers: Google (check), Rockwell-Collins (check), NASA Ames Research Center (check) and Tesla Motors (check)
  • Finish with a senior project that "blows away" industry reps: devised a machine that literally "blows away" manufacturing errors for a National Instruments product demonstration ... (check)

Nearly every staff member and professor who worked with Bell over the last four years has a story to tell about him. Kevin Hewerdine, executive director of career services and employer relations, began relating a story about how Bell came to his staff with an idea for a campus-wide networked display system, but stopped in midsentence to tell about the video surveillance system Michael had invented to protect his own car. 

"Michael bought a totaled Prius (and rebuilt it himself). He was planning to drive it across country, but was worried about the gap in protection in his auto insurance policy, so he devised a high-definition video surveillance system on a continuous loop so that if someone hit him, he would have evidence and not be held responsible for the damage. Sure enough, while he was driving back to Terre Haute from California, a passing semi-truck blew a tire, breaking the Prius' windshield and damaging the roof. Most drivers would have to pay for this damage from their own deductible, but Michael followed the truck and reported the incident to a state trooper. The trucker denied the accident, but Michael was able to show the video to the officer and the trucking company paid fully for the damage," related Hewerdine. "Wouldn't you like one of those on your car?" he asked.

 Bell and Machine
Bell and project advisors with ball-sorting machine,
a system Bell and his team developed as a senior project

Bell has an insatiable energy for solving problems involving everyday life and those of a larger nature, like say global warming or America's dependence on foreign oil.

Bell came to Rose-Hulman from Los Angeles' High Tech High School, a charter school for the technologically inclined. The school was an hour drive from his home. For the first two years he carpooled with other students, but when the other families moved closer to the school, Bell was left doing the prototypical LA commute of spending two hours a day driving his car. This gave him lots of time to think. Two projects he helped develop while in high school--a full size, street legal solar car and a remote computer repair business--were harbingers of what was to come. "I developed a way to fix computers remotely in order to help friends and clients who lived more than an hour away from me. My solution was so effective, that I was able to get an internship at Google during the summer between high school and college because they wanted to use my technique to help improve their IT support effectiveness," he recalled.

"My experience at Google gave me a lot of confidence, so I came to Rose-Hulman expecting to focus on computer engineering. However, I became jealous of my roommate, who was studying mechanical engineering," Bell explained.  "Computers are interesting because they can help you automate tasks in the real world, but in mechanical engineering, you actually learn about how the real world works. I decided that I wanted to learn that too, so I chose to pursue dual degrees."

It didn't take Bell long to start solving problems on the Rose-Hulman campus, too. The first problem he encountered was that working with a laptop (that all students are required to purchase) was uncomfortable especially for long assignments. He and many fellow students found that using a docking station made doing homework at their desks easier. Docking stations, however, are a very expensive technological luxury. After doing some research on the problem, he discovered that many companies discarded docking stations when they replaced laptops for their employees. While the computers were outmoded, the docking stations were perfectly usable. So, Bell bought an entire pallet of used docking stations and became the on-campus supplier for docking stations, offering a better price than any competitor while making a profit.

After a few months, Bell saw another problem with the laptops: after a year or two of use, the battery life got shorter and shorter. He reasoned that this would be a great opportunity for someone who could supply a longer lasting, cheaper battery. He began ordering sample batteries from suppliers in China, but many of these cheaper, knock-off batteries failed. Bell wanted to know why.

Ball machine
Into the eye of the ball sorter; its precision and sophistication
earned the praise of project client National Instruments

His research into battery technology led him to create exact specifications that he believed would result in a more robust, longer lasting battery. He sourced out five manufactures in China and sent them his specification with price parameters. Two manufacturers agreed to create prototypes. Bell then tested them in Rose-Hulman's laboratories, and selected the best manufacturer's product based on testing results.  Soon, he was receiving shipments of custom "Bell batteries." These too were a big success.  He formed a company, Engineering Pixels, LLC, to sell them. Within six months he had sold more than 2,000 batteries, becoming both the leading supplier on campus and a leading supplier on eBay. In fact, he found that even Hewlett Packard (HP) employees, as well as the United States Air Force were purchasing batteries from his company. 

A summer internship for Rockwell-Collins' operations in Dallas allowed Bell to work on a smartphone control systems that allows troops to view UAV video feeds on their smartphones from the battlefield. Then, he spent a summer at NASA Ames Research Center working on robotic control systems for lunar rovers. Finally, in the winter of 2011, he had a nine-month co-op testing and refining battery systems at the Tesla Motors' headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. 

During his summer in Dallas, Bell fulfilled a childhood dream by earning an FAA helicopter pilot's license. Then, as an intern at NASA, he fulfilled another dream by taking classes at Stanford University.  

As a senior at Rose-Hulman, Bell was team leader on a robotic system project for National Instruments that identifies manufacturing errors. The system sorts colored paint balls using a vision inspection system that identifies certain colored balls. The selected balls are sorted by blasts of air. National Instruments was so pleased with the final product that they plan to use it in their world sales tour to demonstrate their manufacturing technologies. The control of the sorting mechanism was so sophisticated that the team could set the system to spell the letters NI (for National Instruments) in a cascading waterfall of paintballs.

"It was, in scope, the largest and most complex senior project I have ever seen," stated faculty advisor Patrick Cunningham, Ph.D. "Michael was the motive force. His enthusiasm and ability to overcome all barriers-or to not even see barriers-made everyone accomplish more than they expected . . . Michael is both very creative, confident and unreservedly ambitious. His level of productivity is truly impressive."

Bell has proven that with enough effort and knowledge that if he can imagine it, he can make it happen. When asked what he wants to do next, he explains that he is fascinated by the intersection of 3-D imaging tools and rapid prototyping, or 3-D, printers.

"Imagine loading copper, silicon and plastic into separate cartridges of a 3-D printer a watching it 'print' a working product like an iPhone. Using nanotechnology, I believe this will be possible someday.  I want to work on that invention," he explained.  

With Michael Bell on the job, you can bet we'll see it happen someday.