Tag Archives: Aaron Ohta

Jonas Umlauft: Soaring on Court and in the Classroom

By: Eric R. Matsunaga,  Marketing and Public Affairs Director, College of Engineering

On any given night at a UH Warrior men’s volleyball match, it quickly becomes evident that the player wearing the number 10 jersey possesses a special skill set and mastery of the game with thunderous, high-flying spikes. In fact, for the second consecutive season, Jonas Umlauft was named to the American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American First Team and for the second consecutive year, led the nation in kills.

What is unknown to most is that Umlauft is equally as talented in the classroom as an electrical engineering major. His dominance on-court is matched in the classroom as Umlauft carries a current GPA of 3.93 in what is traditionally known as the most difficult area in engineering. In fact, he has already taken junior level classes and may be able to complete his undergraduate degree in three and a half years.

What is refreshing about Umlauft is that he does not fit the mold of the stereotypical athlete. After a stellar four-year career in volleyball at Landschulheim Kempfenhausen High School in Stamberg, Germany, including winning the 2008 German National Championship, Umlauft could have easily transitioned to a successful professional career in Europe. Instead, he chose to come to the United States and to the UH Mānoa to study electrical engineering.

“I came to the U.S. to combine academics and athletics as a way to challenge my brain, which would not have been possible had I stayed,” said Umlauft. “Playing professionally is still an option after I graduate, but it’s not my favorite thing to pursue.”

What Umlauft would like to purse is a career in electrical engineering back in Germany, where he left a lot of broken items and gadgets around his parents’ home in Stadtbergen. He credits his early interest in engineering to a fascination with disassembling things. Luckily for the Umlauft household, his father Juergan was an electrical engineer and could piece together the results of his son’s curiosity.

“I had a lot of fun taking things apart to see how they worked, but after I reassembled them, they wouldn’t work,” he said. “I was tired of breaking things, so I decided to learn how things worked.”

His need to understand how things work, combined with his hobby of flying radio controlled model airplanes, led Umlauft to electrical engineering.

“I usually bought assembled sets, so there was not much to modify in terms of the aerodynamics,” he said. “So for optimization purposes, I focused on the electrical components like the engine, controller and receiver.”

“For me, design is the most interesting part of EE because you have the most freedom to solve a problem ‘your way,’” he added. “You have a lot of variables to take into account and you see what tradeoffs engineers in the real world are facing.”

For Umlauft, the key to success on the court and in the classroom, despite the rigors of practice, matches and travel, is to approach classes with the same mindset of treating every drill in practice as though it were the championship match.

Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Aaron Ohta, one of Umlauft’s instructors, is impressed by his conscientiousness. “Although he must adhere to a tough physical training schedule, and travels frequently for road games, he has still managed to complete all of his assignments,” said Ohta. “In class, he is attentive, and asks questions that demonstrate his ability to quickly grasp concepts in a difficult subject like electrical circuits.”




Feature: Big news about microrobots

Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Aaron Ohta

When the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa fielded its first team ever to compete in the annual National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Microrobotics Challenge—held in May 2011 in Shanghai, China—the Honolulu contingent made quite an impression among competitors from the mainland U.S., France, Italy and Canada.

Electrical engineering graduate students Wenqi Hu and Kelly Ishii finished second among seven teams in the challenge of building mobile robots smaller than 1 millimeter in size. Plus, they were members of the only team besides the winning one, University of Waterloo, that was able to assemble more than a single triangle in the micro-assembly challenge. “We were pleasantly surprised to do so well, because we didn’t have much time to work on this project,” said team advisor and Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor Aaron Ohta.

The stellar showing under Ohta’s tutelage was not surprising. The 1999 Kalani High graduate displayed youthful promise when, while enrolled at UH Mānoa in the early 2000s, Ohta was recognized by the national honor society Eta Kappa Nu as the top electrical engineering undergraduate in the U.S. The first UH engineering student to receive the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, Ohta went on to earn his master’s from UCLA in 2004 and PhD from UC Berkeley in 2008, before returning to his alma mater to teach in 2009.

It was easy for Ohta to impart his enthusiasm for the world of microrobotics to Hu, Ishii and engineering student Michelle Zhang, who assisted in earlier stages of the project with Electrical Engineering Assistant Professor David Garmire. They were all fascinated by microrobots that are less than 0.6 millimeters in their largest dimension, which is no larger than the width of six strands of hair. UH Mānoa’s microrobot consisted of a very tiny air bubble inside a microchamber, whose surface was heated by a computer projector. The generated force propelled the microrobot, which in turn could move objects smaller than a millimeter in size.

At the Microrobotics Challenge in Shanghai, the tiny robots competed in miniature arenas under a microscope. The competition consisted of two events: a mobility challenge, in which the robots were timed as they moved around a figure-8 track; and a micro-assembly challenge, in which the robots assembled tiny triangles in a designated area. In a show of school spirit, the UH Mānoa team also assembled tiny glass beads into a “U” and a “H.” Go Warriors!

Ohta said the next steps for the campus, after securing a provisional patent, is to publish academic papers, apply for more research funding and, of course, to get ready for next year’s competition in St. Paul, Minnesota. He shared that future applications could include assembling small electrical components in circuit boards, positioning cells in in vitro laboratory dishes to study how cells interact, and building artificial organs. Now wouldn’t that be big news in microrobots! For more information, contact Ohta at (808) 956-8196 or aohta@hawaii.edu.

Top photo: UH Mānoa’s microrobot assembled tiny glass beads into a “U” and a “H.”

Electrical engineering graduate students Kelly Ishii, left, and Wenqi Hu placed second in the 2011 Microrobotics Challenge held in Shanghai, China.