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Robotics takes first in national competition

Published: Sunday, September 27, 2009

Updated: Sunday, September 27, 2009 11:09


Gretha McCandele

For the second year in a row, the Robotics Club at UCF has won the Autonomous Unmanned Systems International (AUVSI) and Office of Naval Research's (ONR) International Autonomous Surface Vehicle Competition.

It defeated the University of Rhode Island, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Virginia Tech, Florida Technical University, the University of Toronto and the University of Michigan.
Faculty advisor for the club, Daniel Barber, who works as a research associate at the UCF Institute for Simulation and Training, said the club also competed in AUVSI and ONR's 12th International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition and placed fourth overall in the competition.

By creating autonomous vehicles for competitions, students get hands-on experience with robotic devices.

 "We're way ahead than other schools in the surface competitions and our capabilities in the course," Barber said. 

Senior electrical engineering major Jonathan Mohlenhoff, president of the club, said that in March members joined the IEEE Club, an engineering club, on campus to compete in the International of Electrical and Electronics Engineering Southeastern Conference Hardware Competition.

They competed against 38 others schools and placed third overall, Mohlenhoff said. The competition focused on recycling, which required vehicles to recycle products found in a field after a tailgating event.  

He said members are already preparing for next year's AUSVI and ONR's Autonomous Underwater Vehicle and Autonomous Surface Vehicle competitions. Students are also getting ready for the IEEE Southeastern Conference Hardware Competition next year, which will focus on the use of alternative energy in autonomous vehicles, Mohlenhoff said.

Senior electrical engineering major Cassie Puklavage, club treasurer, chose to join the club her freshman year because she liked the club's hands-on approach, she said. Puklavage said the club has taught her to apply knowledge learned in engineering classes and allowed her to work on large projects that are not readily available to students.

New members are divided into teams where they are mentored by active members who have worked on projects for a year or more, Barber said. The club holds an internal competition at the end of every semester to introduce new members to robotics.

Teams are given a budget of about $300 to build vehicles to accomplish small tasks, Mohlenhoff said. Last semester, teams competed to create vehicles to pick up as many ping-pong balls as possible. He said the winning vehicle will be worked on to compete in the IEEE Southeastern Conference Hardware Competition next year.

For national competitions, students build surface, water and aerial vehicles, Barber said. The vehicles must maneuver through a course with different obstacles and execute tasks based on real missions the military seeks to accomplish.

Most of the competitions are sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, the U.S. Department of Defense, the Office of Naval Research, the U.S. Air Force, the U.S. Army, Lockheed Martin and General Dynamics, according to Barber.

Barber believes competitions are like real job interviews since they offer members direct contact with potential employers.

Competitions not only introduce and teach members about robotics, but also allow them to interact with contacts in the industry that can help them find internships and jobs after they graduate, Mohlenhoff said. He also believes they are personally rewarding for members since they push students to learn and create.

Members learn about robotics by using the club's on-site equipment as well.

"Students get to experiment and work with equipment and sensors they couldn't afford on their own," Barber said. "They can come here and use a $5,000 laser-range finder."

The club originally started as a special topics course in engineering, Barber said. It has been competing for seven years and has been an official club with the Student Government Association for five years. Its main sponsors are the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command and the Institute for Simulation and Training.

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