Ronald Heisser focuses on small, millimeter scaled, actuators

Ronald Heisser

Ronald Heisser has been interested in engineering since birth – always having felt the pull to work with his hands and use his creativity. 

“Fortunately, I also had the opportunity to develop an appreciation for math and science,” says Heisser. “Finding mechanical engineering was inevitable.”

Heisser didn’t combine his creativity with mechanical engineering until college – where he realized that within engineering there was a genuine design discipline that fused his interests. “Once I learned that there was a creative place for me in mechanical engineering, I felt like I was somewhere I belonged,” says Heisser.

Having grown up in San Antonio, Texas, Ithaca seemed like a nice change from the city life Heisser knew well. He was drawn to Cornell by the people, but the beautiful scenery and financial incentive didn’t hurt either. Heisser was awarded the Sloan Fellowship, through Diversity Programs in Engineering. Like many graduate students in the Sibley School, Heisser felt an immediate connection to the other graduate students upon visiting.

“I was flown up to Ithaca, introduced to probably 40 students and faculty, and had loads of fun with the students who met with us visitors,” says Heisser. “People matter the most, but Ithaca is beautiful and small, and I had never lived anywhere but big cities.”

After deciding on the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, Heisser joined the Organic Robotics Lab, under the leadership of Robert Shepherd, associate professor in the department. Shepherd encourages his graduate students to use the lab as a platform to advance their own ideas. The Organic Robotics Lab is known for cutting-edge research and is a place where research exploration is the norm, which sometimes comes with the risk of getting lost or caught at a dead end.

“I think that my confidence gets tested in this process, it’s kind of scary not knowing where your thoughts take you,” says Heisser. “But new things happen in uncomfortable places; I think that Rob has trusted me to navigate the unknown.”

The collaboration and community in the Organic Robotics Lab has helped Heisser continue to take steps into the unknown with his research, where real breakthroughs happen.

Heisser’s research focuses on small, millimeter scaled, actuators - making tiny devices that can apply large forces and move, like each dot in refreshable braille devices, used by visually impaired computer users to read text output. 

His main project, and topic of his first paper, has been igniting fuel-oxygen mixtures in small, soft combustion cylinders to make thin rubber membranes (diameters as small as 1mm) quickly pop upwards with a lot of energy. That energy can then be used to raise a braille dot or power other small mechanisms.  “It's a good result, because many other actuation methods have struggled to reach satisfactory levels of force, displacement, and response time for tactile systems like the braille display,” says Heisser.

In addition to countless hours in the lab, Heisser is also the President of SiGMA, the graduate student organization in the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. In the era of COVID-19, his main initiative has been helping the first-year students adapt to graduate school and ensuring they feel part of the Sibley School community. Even while in-person gatherings haven’t been an option, SiGMA has found ways to connect students with each other and the greater Ithaca community. For example: since May, the SiGMA Outreach Committee has organized weekly virtual concerts, comprised of graduate student performers, for the Cayuga Ridge Nursing Home and the Sibley School community.

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