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UCF Robotics Club grabs prize with robo-boat

Published: Monday, September 8, 2008

Updated: Sunday, February 15, 2009 16:02

UCF Robotics Club's robo-boat creation Son of a Boatname captured the $8,000 first-place prize at the Autonomous Surface Vehicle Competition in San Diego.

On the edge of a 40-foot deep pool at the Transducer Evaluation Center (TRANSDEC) military facility in California, six qualifying universities launched their robotic boats in a competition that took months of preparation.

Robotics Club members Cassondra Puklavage, Ross Kerley, Chris Bunty, Jonathan Mohlenhoff and graduate advisor Gary Stein crowded on the observing deck, guided their robo-boat into starting position via remote control and with an excitement similar to spectators watching Olympic swimming, let Son of a Boatname's computer mind takeover.

There were several missions for the team's robot to accomplish.

Son of a Boatname had to navigate a channel by passing through a gate, then go through a series of buoys and identify red targets on poles that needed to be knocked down with a water cannon.

After those tasks, the robot had to dock beside a plastic action figure waiting to be rescued.

Each team received points for completing tasks, and lost points for failing them. Whoever finished with the most points, won.

Son of a Boatname weighs about 30 pounds, and features a 40-inch-long and 36-inch-wide platform for a propulsion system, water cannon, GPS, compass, adjustable camera and autonomous navigation software, as described by the robotics club's website.

Aside from the robo-boat's prefabricated twin hulls, all of the work from conception to programming to construction was performed inside the robotics lab at UCF's Institute for Simulation & Training.

The Robotics Club has already built ground, underwater, and aerial vehicles for research and competitions, but this was the first water surface vehicle competition by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International.

Both the AUVSI and the Office of Naval Research sponsored the competition and created the rules.

The Robotics Club had limited resources to assemble their robot. The size of the robot was also limited. According to Unmanned Systems magazine, who also covered the story, most of the robots in the competition weighed less than 30 pounds.

"Our size was maxed out," software engineer Mohlenhoff said. "The rules allowed us to have a large boat, so we didn't have to worry about batteries. We could put a big battery on, and we didn't have to worry about space, so we had a full sized computer."

The competing universities had to transport their robots across the country to California. Weight limits were also imposed on them by airline companies.

"For the most part, our hardware traveled well," mechanical engineer Chris Bunty said. "Everything pretty much worked in the pool. And then we had a combination of agile programming and good programmers that could change the things that needed to be changed."

Once in San Diego, the competition spanned three days; two days for practice and one day for competition. UCF placed third in their qualifying run.

Pennsylvania State University was forced to drop out for safety reasons after one of their team's engineers received a minor electric shock from their robo-boat's power source.

The UCF team had their own technical difficulties to overcome. Since their robot was completely self-sufficient, it had a flashing warning light that indicated if there was a possibility that the robot could go against programming.

"That actually broke because it wasn't quite water-proof," Mohlenhoff said. "So we replaced it, and put a new light on it."

The colors of the buoys Son of a Boatname had to navigate through also changed. The team had based their robot's vision system off of taking color thresholds from the buoys, so the software had to be re-written to work with the new color scheme.

UCF also had vision difficulties on their qualifying run because of the blinding glare from the sun. "San Diego [in August] is very bright," Stein said.

It was sunny the day of the competition as well. UCF's team strategically chose their 15-minute time slot so that the sun's glare would interfere least with their robot's vision system as little as possible.

"We knew beforehand there would be issues, so we anticipated [having to do on-sight work,]" Bunty said.

After making the necessary modifications to Son of a Boatname, UCF's robotics team completed the majority of their mission tasks, earning enough points to secure first place. The team did not attempt the "shoot the targets" task because they weren't able to pull it off in practice.

David Novick, a researcher at Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico and competition judge, told Unmanned Systems that next year's competition will include an imperative to shoot something because it's more entertaining to watch.

Friendly competitions between robot engineers like this may be the first step in the development of more advanced robots. The technology behind the MQ-1 Predator unmanned aerial vehicle likely began in a similar way.

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