From Motors to Sensors

An Interview with Gabriel Russ of Irvine Ondrey

Dr. LeBlanc taught me that someone will figure it out, so it might as well be me.
- Gabriel Russ

Gabriel Russ graduated from Ohio Northern University with a degree in Electrical Engineering. He is a former student of Dr. Heath LeBlanc, Associate Professor of Electrical & Computer Engineering at Ohio Northern University and a 2021 KEEN Rising Star. Gabe works for Irvine Ondrey Engineering (IOE), designing and implementing the control and safety systems for roller coasters and other rides. The following is taken from his interview with Edmond J. Dougherty, Retired Professor of Practice and Director Engineering Entrepreneurship, Villanova University.

Gabriel Russ, Electrical Engineer

What are your memories of being in class with Dr. LeBlanc?

“I have a lot of really good memories of classes with him. I think the first time I interacted with him was freshman year and I continued to consult with him all the way through senior year. You could tell he knew about a wide range of different technologies, and was very good at applying them. 

“I was initially going to go in a different direction with my electrical engineering, but after taking some of his classes in control, I changed my path. He was very good at explaining all the concepts. His notes were very well done and that inspired me to take more advanced controls where I learned a lot more about the nitty gritty of the different controls principles.”

You're involved with amusement park rides right now. How did that come about? 

 “I used to work at a theme park as an operator. Later when I attended ONU I found a company that does control systems for theme park rides. That was always one of my interests. Since I graduated and joined the company, I've been nonstop traveling literally everywhere. I’ve worked on all sorts of rides from water rides and roller coasters to more Disney-style show rides. It's an interesting job that definitely pushes me.”

What made you want to go into the ride industry? 

“I went to Cedar Point as a kid and that was my parent’s summer thing. They always took us up there and that's where I fell in love with it. That's where my first job was. I became an operator. I ran the roller coaster. The first one I operated was Steel Vengeance.”

It seems like that's a mechanical engineering job. So how did you get involved with controls? 

“My dad is also an electrical engineer. He always pointed out to me how electrical engineering is used. I’ve been using PLC since I was 10. It was an easy jump to make. Not a lot of people think about what electrical engineers do because we're very much in the background. We don't really show up in the spotlight much, but we basically do everything from the motors to the sensors.” 

How did you find your position at IOE? 

“I found them just by Googling. I reached out to them directly and they didn't run away. So here I am now. It's a high stress job, but it's really enjoyable. They are always trying to get us to reach outside our comfort zone and just try new things. The best example I can give is a project the company was working on that was just not coming together. I was given the opportunity to dive in, started fighting the issues and managed to figure it out. Dr. LeBlanc taught me that someone will figure it out, so it might as well be me.”

Why is it a high stress job? 

“Safety first of all. We've got people's lives in our hands. “I worked on 10 rides this summer. We’re constantly travelling everywhere. Each ride is its own semi-unique system; so we design a control system for the ride. It's basically an industrial control system that we program. We get a nice mix of designing for new rides and retrofitting old ones. It is about 50/50.” 

Does it keep you up at night worrying about safety? 

“No. The safety tests we do are through. We're able to trust our process. We test everything and design the systems so that the ride will work the same now as it will 10 years from now. In a retrofit project, usually we'll add extra sensors or double up the sensors that are already there to make sure the ride meets modern safety standards.”

Gabriel Russ Coaster

How many people are on your team? 

“There’s just 4 1/2 people in our company. Before we go to a site, we typically design all the control cabinets well in advance; and write most of the code. For the most part it's showing up on site and doing electrical testing. We use ladder logic. That's probably not going to change even though it has been around for decades. The only safety certified code that we can do is ladder logic.”

How much do the safety standards change from one state or one country to another? 

“The standards are pretty much global. In the US, because regulation of parks is on a state by state basis, we follow ASTM (American National Standards Institute) standards. We apply those internationally as well. Personally, I research and study along the lines of launch systems, launch drives, and motor control. That's always been my specialty. Motor drives are nice and straightforward.” 

Are you using linear induction motors in any of these? 

“Mostly the rides use chain dives or cable. Sometimes linear induction. Linear synchronous motors are a lot of fun, but they have a lot of challenges.” 

How does your company do sales with such a small staff? 

“It's a very small industry, so most manufacturers already have a company they normally use. We have a lot of contacts at various parks. We reach out to them and ask what they have scheduled for the upcoming year. There are enough parks that keep us busy. There's always someone who wants a new system.” 

Do you see Virtual Reality as a threat to the physical world of amusement parks? 

“I'm not too concerned. I've got a VR headset myself. I’ve also seen them used at parks. They still have a number of issues in terms of reliability. Some of the bigger projects I've been working on involve more storytelling than just rolling up and down on a rail. The future is going to be interesting. There's going to be a lot more technology involved for sure.”

About the Author

Edmond Dougherty

Edmond Dougherty, Retired Professor of Practice and Director Engineering Entrepreneurship, Villanova University

Edmond has many years of experience in the design, development, and management of complex electronic and software systems. He was part of a team that helped develop the Emmy and Academy Award winning Skycam, an aerial robotic control camera system. He also developed an aerial camera system called Wavecam that is now owned by Skycam. He has 13 US patents. He was awarded the IEEE Member Award for the Philadelphia area, and the Meyer Innovation and Creative Excellence (ICE) Award at Villanova University.

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