Houston, We Have A Problem…

So you’re out and about and enjoying the great outdoors…

Sounds like the start of how some horror stories begin, doesn’t it? We all know that there’ll be some people that won’t make, some will, and generally, things will assume some sort of acceptable normalcy at the end. What keeps us going back to see the next big-screen thriller is what elements and wrinkles the writer and director have crafted together in what we call a movie.

Engineering is no different.

Just like the scriptwriter and director, the engineer plays the key role of how the widget is designed, how it works, and the nuances that come with it all. It’s a series of trade-offs and compromises, in addition to understanding what the problem at hand is.

So let’s take a thought experiment and flex some of our creativity muscles. If you think you have a solution, post how you’d tackle the problem down below in the comments. In a following email, I’ll go over some of the different ideas students I’ve worked with came up with.


The Scenario:
So you and a friend have recently taken up a new hobby to get out and about and enjoy outdoors and have bought a metal detector. For the past few weeks, you’ve been digging up loose change in the backyard and at the beach. Definitely helps since the summer weather is so great. It’s fun finding the stuff, but it’s time to go bigger. Your friend just heard about a local mine that hasn’t been in use since the early 1920’s and even better, used to be a gold mine! That Friday night, you load the SUV up with the metal detector, a pick, shovel, pry bar, and enough snacks and water for the day. The following morning, after having a dream of finding nuggets of gold, the both of you hop into the car and drive 120 miles out into the desert to the mine.

Finally, after reaching the end of the road in the middle of nowhere, you stop, and your friend starts unloading while you head to a rocky mound to get a better vantage. As you climb through some old barbed-wire fencing to look for a trail, your keys (and attached to your Swiss Army knife) fall out of your pocket and jingle across the rocks before they disappear into a deep, 6-inch wide crevice between two boulders. Needless to say, neither your cell phone nor your OnStar system gets reception out here, and the fancy anti-theft option you went for makes hot-wiring your SUV all but impossible.

The Challenge:
Without transportation, you’re stranded.To avoid the daunting prospect of walking back to the main road, as well as “never hearing the end of this” from all your friends back in town, you’re going to need to recover those keys.

The boulders are way too massive to be moved in any way, and you don’t have a direct sight line to your keys. From the sound it made during the fall, you’re pretty sure that the crevice can’t be more than 15 feet deep. It’s about noon now, so you have at least 6-7 hours of daylight to work with before it gets dark. Surely someone with your skills and ingenuity can get those suckers out of there in time to get home safely, if not still salvage the outing? As the wheels start turning in your head, your friend appears and asks, “Is something wrong?”

Here’s what you’ve got:
In addition to everything mentioned, there’s a basic tool kit in the car: hammer, screwdriver, adjustable wrench, snippers, pliers, etc., as well as 100 feet of nylon rope. Since this is an old mining area, there may also be some small pieces of metal and wood lying around.

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