NATICK, Mass. -- Five University of Massachusetts-Amherst seniors completed a capstone project this past spring, creating a full-scale, 20-foot tall, quickly deployable tower prototype in just less than four months.

The prototype exceeded many of the requirements set forth by the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command's Soldier Center.

The mechanical engineers -- Joe Boisvert, Mike Covino, Chris Dinan, Brandon Hicks and Kyle Pereira -- graduated in May after working with the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center as part of their Senior Capstone Design course.

"In this way we got to give the students a real issue that we have at NSRDEC that they can work on," NSRDEC mechanical engineer Nick Tino said. "They have a few more resources to work with if it's a sponsored project, so they can make something a bit more complex than they would normally."

The UMass team's prototype earned them first place at the Senior Capstone Design Evaluation competition, based on presentation style, technical content, prototype and professionalism.

"This project really encompassed every class that I took during my academic engineering career," Boisvert said. "From statics to wind power, this project was truly a 'capstone' design project. From an engineering perspective, I realized the importance of designing for manufacturability. What looks good on a computer screen or on a spreadsheet does not always work when it comes time to build."

The team spent nearly 2,000 hours working on the project, with about 700 hours spent on manufacturing the tower, which is designed for use in forward operating bases. The tower is meant to provide communication and surveillance capabilities. Currently deployed systems are heavy, expensive and take substantial time to set up and transport, which are a few of the major challenges the team faced during the project.

"They worked many hours on the project, well above and beyond expectations including many weekends and afterhours, which clearly showed in their final design," said professor Sundar Krishnamurty, department of mechanical and industrial engineering at UMass-Amherst.

UMass' design was under budget for both prototype and production cost, sustained the ideal wind value of 65 mph, weighed 95 pounds so it could be carried by three Soldiers and not the suggested four, and required an assembly time of about 4 minutes as opposed to 30 minutes.

The system is self-standing, includes leveling features, fits in a 7-foot shipping container, allows for controlled access to the approximately 30-pound load that can be lifted by a simple hand-powered mechanical lifting system, and does not require additional specialized tools.

"I will never forget when we first lifted the tower into the air outside," Boisevert said. "We were all ecstatic to see our hard work come to life outside of the engineering lab."

"The physical prototype is extremely impressive," Tino said. "Yet we emphasized the whole way that as you're building to keep track and note what you would change the next time, it works fine for now for this prototype, but if you were going to do it again, what would the next prototype be and what are the differences? I think that's important for any engineer as they're building the first of anything, it might work but there's almost always room for improvement."

The team kept a list and made suggestions in its final report, including telescoping adjustable legs for additional leveling and enclosing the pulleys and winch system within the load-lifting system to avoid jamming.

"This was the first project that showed what it was like to be an engineer in the field with a full-scale project," Periera said. "To think that three months prior we had absolutely nothing, and out of our hard work and determination came a fully functional deployable tower that won the competition was just breath-taking and an extraordinary way to end our senior year."

The team was also able to showcase its design during a presentation at NSRDEC.

"We get a really good quick look at a concept," NSRDEC mechanical engineer Karen Horak said. "There's just so much thought put into one small design. When we had them come to Natick we had our customers there, we had the [product manager] look at it, and it was very well-received."

Another team worked with NSRDEC on a rigid door system for fabric shelters in fall 2012. That team came up with ideas for a split-open door concept. UMass-Amherst will continue the collaboration with NSRDEC in the fall semester.

"We thank NSDRDEC for the opportunity as this is exactly the kind of collaboration that we seek in our industry-sponsored capstone design projects," Krishnamurty said.

NSRDEC's support of this senior project at UMass-Amherst is most adequately summed up by the students who participated in the design project.

"I am still to this day ecstatic about working with NSRDEC and the opportunity that they provided us as students, and now as engineers," Boisevert said. "Overall, it was an excellent experience that I am proud to call the start of my engineering career."