Robots, race cars and rockets: Robert Brenneman finds his passion in mechatronics
Robert Brenneman is graduating in May, but he’ll still have one more month to enjoy what he’s accomplished as an undergraduate student. In June, he’ll be competing on the Michigan International Speedway during the 2023 Formula SAE Series using the car he built for his senior design project
Brenneman, who is part of the joint NC State University and University of North Carolina at Asheville program, earned a B.S. in engineering with a mechatronics concentration. He earned his degree entirely in Asheville in the mountains that he loves, while receiving remote instruction from NC State faculty members.
“Asheville is a small town where you can go downtown for an evening or go hiking for an afternoon,” he said. “It’s a great place nestled in the mountains with a lot of energy between the town and the university environment.”
Becoming an engineer in Asheville
By the end of high school, Brenneman was set on pursuing engineering. He was interested in both metal assemblies and mechanical systems — and he realized mechatronics combined both.
“It’s a unique time in industry with a need for engineers to have electronic and mechanical skills,” he said. “The program adds so much value to make me into a well-rounded engineer.”
The joint program’s curriculum is split between liberal arts classes at UNC Asheville and engineering classes through NC State. All liberal arts classes were taught live by UNC Asheville faculty while engineering classes were split into half live distance education and half in-person. When it came time for an engineering class, Brenneman and approximately 25 classmates gathered in a lecture hall either for live-streamed classes from NC State or for classes taught locally at UNC Asheville by NC State professors.
The engineering community at UNC Asheville is tight-knit, and Brenneman felt like he was getting everything he needed to succeed.
“It’s still easy to go to office hours, go over lectures again if you didn’t understand something because they’re recorded, and get collaborative work done, especially if you can find a good group of people,” he said.
A well-rounded student
At UNC Asheville, Brenneman stayed busy outside of academics. He continued participating in track and field at the collegiate level, spending four and a half years competing in sprints and decathlons. He helped his team’s 4×400 team to several first-place finishes.
Off the track, he was involved in the Mechatronics Ambassadors program by his sophomore year. He coordinated meet-and-greets and presentations with industry partners and set up job interview practice sessions. By his senior year, he rose through the ranks to become president.
“With mechatronics being the only engineering degree on campus, you have a lot of identity with that and it was a great thing to join and represent my major,” he said.
One of Brenneman’s first classes tasked him with balancing a pendulum utilizing electrical and mechanical systems. What he learned from these challenges helped him in leading the IEEE Hardware Team in designing and building a robot to compete at the 2022 IEEE Southeastcon. The team finished second place out of 37 teams, with competitors including Virginia Tech and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte.
Over the last few months, he has tackled his largest project yet: preparing his Formula E race car for competition. He and his team had just two semesters to construct their race car, while most competition cars are typically completed over the course of two years or more. Brenneman’s contribution to the project was as the CHASSIS lead, where he worked on the steel-tube frame of the car and made sure other components were melded correctly to it.
“Design is such an essential part of assembly and manufacturing,” he said. “After five different internships, I have seen engineers design something cool, but problems such as cost and not knowing if it would actually work arise. With this project, I’ve come to understand the importance of designing with assembly and manufacturing in mind.”
Prepared for the future
Industry internships have been a key part of Brenneman’s college experience. He was a technical preparation engineering Intern for Volvo Trucks, a software and controls engineering intern for Eaton, a mechanical engineering intern for System Logistics Corporation, and a controls engineer intern for GE Power.
“Working at GE Power was really cool, working with massive jet engines that generate the majority of electricity in this area of South Carolina was a pinnacle moment,” he said.
As graduation draws near, he is preparing for a move to Brownsville, Texas to join SpaceX as a launchpad engineer. He will specialize in fluid and mechanical systems to make sure Starship is prepared for takeoff.
Brenneman attributes much of his success to the resources available through NC State while having the small, supportive community at UNC Asheville where he felt he had room to grow.
“The combination of resources and having that space to grow to make an impact was a great way to help set me up,” he said. “Overall, though, you get what you put in.”