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> College of Engineering > M&IE Dept. > ME Program / MET Program
Robb E. Larson, PE
Associate Professor

Mechanical & Industrial  Engineering
Montana State University - Bozeman
PO Box 173800
220 Roberts Hall
Bozeman MT

(406) 994-6420
(406) 994-6292 (fax)
Office: Roberts 306b

Applied Research

The term “applied research” usually indicates that a solution to a specific problem is needed, in contrast to basic research which tends towards open-ended investigations of various phenomena. Applied research offers a good fit with my appointment in the MET program of the MIE department, and provides many opportunities for student participation. Nearly all of my applied projects have required the design and fabrication of equipment to serve a particular purpose or need, often with tight timelines for completion. And with few exceptions students are included in the research efforts.

Research Projects

Over the past 17+ years at MSU I’ve participated in a large variety of projects, both in solo efforts and in collaboration with other researchers from my own MIE department, other departments in the College of Engineering, other colleges across campus, other universities and external agencies, individuals & companies. (In addition to MSU-related work I am active in consulting as an independent professional engineer, with a focus on design and product development,  product liability, patent infringement, & forensics work.) Past MSU research activities include: composite materials performance evaluation; instrumentation projects ranging from spacecraft exercise equipment to Antarctic research apparatus; transportation systems studies; snow science work; and reverse engineering projects. But presently most of my research efforts land in two areas of study: Wind Applications, and Snow Science.


On the Snow Science front, I’ve been formally involved in avalanche and snow science work for about eight years, and informally as a skier and winter recreationalist virtually my entire life. Winter snow science field work has somewhat unique demands: It requires strong skiing and mountaineering skills, a good attitude about putting in long winter days in the field, and the ability to work productively in a frozen winter mountain environment. So growing up in Montana & skiing up to 80 days a year at Bridger Bowl certainly helped make this work seem like fun - well most of the time anyway. My snow science project tasks have included instrumentation development for measurement of various avalanche parameters like velocity, density and temperature, and I’ve served on graduate committees for many students working on snow-related projects.

"Avalanche Control Explosives Monitoring" Explosives are frequently used for avalanche control in public transportation corridors and within ski area boundaries, but little research into explosive effectiveness with snow has been undertaken prior to this joint CE/ME project. Planning and equipment preparation for this project began during summer 20009. Then during the 2009/2010 winter, five experimental test sequences were conducted at Bridger Bowl Ski Area to measure snowpack response to explosive charges.

Tests were conducted with both single and double 2lb Pentolite cast boosters, the common hand-charges utilized during avalanche control operations. Snowpack dynamic response was measured with respect to various charge placement scenarios. Bi-axial accelerometer sensors were placed at various depths in snow and at different ranges from the explosive charge. Vertical and radial accelerations were recorded at multiple snow depths at each range from the blast, utilizing high-speed digital data acquisition apparatus. Blast air overpressure (up to 5 psi) was also measured. The resulting acceleration data was mathematically integrated to yield snowpack velocity and displacement. Findings include the influence of charge size on snowpack response, details of the attenuation of acceleration, velocity, and displacement with increasing distance from the charge and vertically with increasing snow depth.  The periodic oscillatory response of the snow slab during the explosive events is also of interest. Measurements support a previous study of enhanced effectiveness using suspended explosives.

A companion computer study undertaken by Dr. Daniel Miller (CE) predicts snowpack response to explosive blasts, and utilizes these experimental results to validate the software predictions. Abstracts describing results for both the computer and experimental studies have been submitted for presentation at the 2010 International Snow Science Workshop, and further work is planned.

“Avalanche/Crash Dummy” ProjectThis project utilizes an automotive-style crash test dummy to investigate the loads and forces experienced by a person caught in a snow avalanche.  The work is being performed in collaboration with the management & ski patrol at Bridger Bowl Ski Area. Funding comes from MSU's NASA EPSCOR office, COE Dean Dr. Robert Marley, from some MSU 'startup package' funding, and from out-of-pocket. The project goal is to provide a correlation between injuries and impacts suffered by victims of snow avalanches, through the use of an anatomically accurate, full-sized, instrumented crash dummy. This work may contribute to better sports and safety equipment and rescue procedures, with an ultimate goal to save the lives of folks who work and play in avalanche-prone mountain areas such as the mountains of Southwest Montana where so many MSU students and faculty enjoy recreational time.

The instrumentation demands of this work have been quite intense: Successful implementation requires computer-controlled sampling dozens of parallel data channels at rates fast enough to catch impact phenomenon. That task is challenging in a lab environment, but in this case the venue is a cold, dangerous winter mountain landscape. A simultaneous effort involves the measurement of  snow velocity, load and depth using equipment designed and built by student groups as part of ME and MET Capstone Design and by summer research interns. This setup also operates with a stand-alone, battery-operated, remote-activated computer-controlled system that (hopefully) remains in-place while the slide passes.

The avalanche dummy project is an ambitious  approach to the development of biomechanics research capability within the Mechanical and Industrial Engineering department. The advantage of this "swing for the home-run" tactic is that all the bases must be touched on the way around: The project team has already acquired the basic dummy infrastructure, researched available background information, fabricated/installed/calibrated sensors,  developed sophisticated data acquisition methodology, created remote-control power management systems, and is now finalizing assembly of a self-contained, autonomous dummy system. Many possible studies in sports, health care, and industrial environment applications are now possible and would use just a portion of the capabilities already in-hand.

initial research results were presented in September 2008 at the International Snow Science Workshop in Whistler, BC, Canada. Continuing investigations are planned .

Loading "Homer" the avalanche dummy on the Bridger Chair in preparation for a round of testing.

Avalanche Dummy test in-progress: The North Bowl, Bridger Bowl Ski Area, April 2008

Snowmelt Study Project. This demonstration project investigated the process of localized seasonal snowmelt in a high alpine environment, from late winter (snow pack near seasonal maximum) until late spring (snow pack melted.) The diurnal response of snow pack to atmospheric and solar inputs was recorded. Results may provide a link between local climate conditions and snow pack response. Specific goals include gathering data regarding the influence of contamination on snow pack reflectivity, melting, and structure (including faceting, 'sun-cupping', density change, etc.) Data could be useful to ground-truth satellite- or aircraft-based measurements, and demonstrated the ability of available MSU instrumentation and systems to perform meaningful research applicable to global warming studies, transportation issues, climatology, snow pack & hydrology research

The study utilized the WTI Mobile Lab as a base station to provide power, house data acquisition systems and sensors, and to provide secure on-site accommodations for equipment and researchers. A suitable site near the Ophir school in Gallatin Canyon was selected based on significant snow pack, adequate view parameters, accessibility, security, aspect, and elevation: Proposed sites for follow-on studies include access roads on or near Big Sky Ski Area or Yellowstone Club Ski Area in the Northern Gallatin Range of Southwest Montana, or Bridger Bowl Ski Area in the Bridger Mountain Range.

The sensor package included a continuous record of Air Temperature, Humidity, Wind Speed and Direction, Snow Pack Temperature, Time lapse video, Direct Solar Radiation,  Reflected Solar Radiation. Sensors developed for detection of Presence of liquid water in snow pack and Snow Depth were not installed on this demonstration run. Also omitted from this test sequence was a planned, periodic full-spectrum measurements of snow pack reflectivity that would have been used to determine local reflectivity ratio (albedo) in order to validate bulk measurements obtained with the pyranometers.

Funding assistance for summer student and faculty salary support was provided by MSU's EPSCOR office.


Montana Wind Applications Center
I serve as Director of the Montana WAC, funded by the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.    See stories at

The "Center" designation comes with big expectations - but there are big opportunities for growth and for beneficial outcomes in this area. Its exciting to get involved in the development of renewable energy educational programs in the College of Engineering.

THe WAC has sponsored several ME/MET Capstone groups, including a 2007/2008 effort that focused on host school selection for the Montana Wind for Schools projects and design of residential wind tower tilt-down mechanisms. In 2008/2009 another interdisciplinary ME/MET capstone team worked on monitoring hardware for wind turbines, and 16 MET seniors enrolled in my 'Alternative Energy Applications' professional elective course. On 10/13/2008 we tilted up MSU's  on-campus wind turbine, and in December we took delivery on four complete anemometer systems that will be rotated through various sites for  wind resource evaluation around the state.

Occupancy of a dedicated Wind Applications Center building at #22 Faculty Court on the MSU Campus occurred in Spring 2009, and in summer 2009 two full-time 'wind-ternships' and one non-paid academic internship were filled: Two more interns in summer 2010 helped bring Montana "Wind for Schools" program turbine installations up to 11 units, and more interns are being hired for summer 2011. The WAC is now in it's 3rd year, and has a track record of successful outreach efforts and collaborations. Together we are making a difference, and it is rewarding to work with MSU faculty and students as we step up to help Montana and the United States take charge of our energy future.

 A wind resource map of the United States. Both high resolution and low resolution datasets are used.
United States Wind Resource Map

Judith Gap Wind Farm, Tour with MET480 Alternative Energy Class

 Montana Wind Resource Map

Other Research:

Western Transportation Institute Collaboration. I’ve been affiliated with Western Transportation Institute (WTI) for ten years, and have participated in a number of interesting projects.

Vehicle-Based Sensor Technologies
In 2006 I was among several WTI researchers who, along with several graduate students, prepared an exhaustive report on Vehicle-Based Sensor Technologies for Winter Maintenance. The report along with a paper described cutting-edge technologies that can make maintaining winter roadways more efficient, safer and less costly. Numerous vehicle-based technologies, including automatic vehicle location (AVL), surface temperature measuring devices, on-board freezing point and ice-presence detection systems, salinity measuring devices, visual and multi-spectral sensors, and millimeter wavelength radar sensors were investigated. Conducted through the NCHRP Project 20-7/Task 200, the paper synthesized information obtained from a comprehensive literature review and agency surveys on the state of development of these advanced technologies. Of these technologies, AVL systems, road surface temperature measuring devices and FAST systems are the only ones that have matured and become fully operational, while the remainders are still in the development and testing phases. The information offered by this paper was provided to encourage maintenance agencies to implement better winter maintenance practices with respect to providing safe, reliable winter highways in a cost-effective and environmentally responsible manner.

Mobile Laboratory
n 2000 while working on other WTI projects, I proposed development of a mobile testing laboratory for transportation field research. Over the next several years, the Western Transportation Institute Mobile Laboratory was born. Bringing the concept from a paper design to a complete, working field unit took three full years, and the vehicle continues to evolve as new research project uses are found. In its present state, the 1-ton 4WD box van contains three computer systems, an advanced modular data acquisition system, an extendable pneumatic boom upon which twin traffic cameras or a field weather station can be deployed, GPS and radio systems, and a number of other elements to make transportation field research productive and efficient. Thus far the mobile lab project has employed over 15 student workers, as research interns. Several student Capstone Design projects were also sponsored, resulting in innovative equipment for transportation research. The van has been used by WTI researchers (including myself) for projects sponsored by the Montana Department of Transportation and other agencies. Tiered agreements provide for its use by MSU and non-MSU entities.

  WTI Mobile Laboratory Vehicle:
With weather Station Deployed, and below with  Video Traffic Cameras

Updated: 4/29/2011
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