Club’s self-thinking aquatic bot earns second place finish
Published: Sunday, June 26, 2011
Updated: Sunday, June 26, 2011 17:06
After spending nearly every day of the last 10 months in the lab, the UCF robotics club finally perfected their latest creation: an aquatic robot capable of making its own decisions.
"We basically spend an entire year building these robots that we send to competition," said Kiran Bernard, recent graduate from the electrical engineering program and member of the robotics club.
On June 12, the robotics club traveled to Virginia Beach, Va., and competed against 14 other teams from around the world in the Office of Naval Research and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's RoboBoats competition, where they ultimately took home second place and $4,000.
"It's an annual event that is sponsored by government agencies where student teams are required to build a robotic vehicle from the ground up that is capable of navigating different kinds of obstacle courses without any human intervention," said Daniel Barber, faculty advisor of the robotics club and research associate for the Institute for Simulation and Training.
Students in the robotics club began working on their submission to the RoboBoat competition late last August. Their task was to build a small boat capable of guiding itself through a series of challenges without the help of its creators; in other words, a completely autonomous robot.
"There are actually several different challenges," robotics club vice president Michael Scherer said. "The main challenge, which is called the autonomous challenge, is where the robot must drive through these lanes; so its almost like a road except with a ton of obstacles. So they have to dodge these obstacles while still staying in the lanes, which is actually a bit more challenging than you'd think. The robots themselves are all autonomous. So that means there is no remote controls, or anything like that; there is a computer on the robot itself that we program and that makes all the decisions."
Scherer, a senior computer science major, went on to say that some of the obstacles that the robot had to overcome included putting out a small fire with a squirt gun, as well as retrieving a tennis ball that was underwater. While there are standards in the competition that the robot must meet, the rules are kept loose so students can show their creativity. While some teams deployed a small object to retrieve the tennis ball, the club's robot used a long arm.
"Our main focus when we designed this robot was to design a very solid platform," Scherer said. "We weren't too worried about the software; we were worried about designing something that would have no hardware problems, no electrical problems, that would just work."
Within the robotics club there are three subgroups, referred to as the big teams — the ground vehicle team, boat team and submarine team. Having already taken home second place in both the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition and the RoboBoat competition, the robotics club is preparing for their upcoming submarine competition in San Diego. Barber is hoping they can learn a few lessons from their previous competitions.
"Specifically, we are going to simplify some of the electronics that we have on the boat," Barber said. "We are going to change the types of motors that we are using to make a more sturdy platform because we were having a lot of hardware issues and would like to improve those for next year."
Not surprisingly, building robots is not a cheap hobby. According to Barber, a single robot can cost upwards of $20,000. Members of the robotics club find motivation to excel in competition not only for the glory, but also because much of the funding for the club comes from money won in competitions. In addition to their winnings, funding for the club comes from various sponsorships and SGA.
Many may think that members of the robotics club walk in to their first meeting already knowing how to build and program a robot. In fact, it is quite the contrary.
"When I first got to robotics club I didn't know about any form of robotics whatsoever," Bernard said. "It was kind of nice. They don't have any requirements for the club, you just join. If you're interested, they take you."
Scherer said that when he first attended a robotics club meeting his freshman year of college, he had a vague interest in robots, but the closest he had ever come to actually building one was when he played with Legos as a child. According the Scherer, as long as individuals have a genuine interest and are self-motivated, they do well in the club.
"We like to say, ‘No matter how much you know, you can come in,'" Scherer said.