Rockets and Marshmallows and Glass! Oh, My!

The St. Louis Science Center is the perfect antidote for kids with cabin fever, and what better time to visit than Engineers’ Week?

S&T’s design teams, along with amazing students from Material Advantage outreach crew, celebrated by setting up hands-on technical displays that kids are encouraged to touch, play, launch, break and even eat.

Advanced Aero Vehicle Group turned paper and tape into the stuff of dreams by helping young children build and name their own paper rockets. A small compressor and PVC tubing served as the perfect platform to simultaneously send four semi-guided paper projectiles near the roof of the Science Center’s four story building. Most of the missiles were taken home as prized trophies; others remain on ceiling beams, the top of the elevator, or firmly lodged in other groups’ displays.

MADSC_9077 The student traveling roadshow known as Material Advantage, AKA material manipulators, brought playtime down to earth by handing out nitrogen-frozen marshmallows. The little gems look and taste the same but go “crunch!” when eaten and cause steamy vapor to escape from your nose. Just the kind of thing to keep kids wondering “How?” “Why?”

Engineering can be a lot of fun; intriguing stuff that ignites the spark that guides a youngster’s entire life. A passion that may have started with steam wafting from a child’s nose.

Summer Weekend, Part Trois

JoeMegatron is back home from the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition with a few new bumps and bruises. Late in the day “Joe’s” performance began to drop, apparently due to a failed video camera. Solution? Grab and mount a USB computer camera and hope for the best. It’ll take some time before the IGVC folks publish the results, but Nick Eplin says we ended up “……in the middle of the pack.”
Pretty good when 32 of 50 teams actually showed up, 16 of 32 teams actually qualified, so that could mean S&T took as high as 6th or 7th place out of, uh, 50 teams. Yeah, it’s a bit of stretch, but until the official results are known, we’ll run with that theory.
In the meantime, JoeMegatron will do an encore Wednesday night at S&T’s Robotics camp. Chief team ME Nick Marik will escort “Joe” to an evening seminar in an attempt to inspire the kids to become the next EEs and MEs to update and improve the ‘bot’s performance.

Qualified! With GUSTO!

Never get in the way of a robot on a mission.
JoeMegatron is the 15th out of 32 teams to qualify, and it left no doubt about its intentions and capabilities.
To qualify for today’s event each machine must find its way to specific waypoints while avoiding obstacles, but S&T’s robot is probably the only device that had to avoid moving obstacles. This morning’s waypoint was a popular viewing spot, as about 15 students set up camp right on top of the spot. Low voltage or no, Joe danced and weaved merrily into the RobSUN_7652.jpgcrowd, swerving around spectators and chairs alike. It it wasn’t easy as laughing students were scrambling to keep from getting run over.
Once on the obstacle course Joe headed directly to a different waypoint instead of taking the ‘approved’ course. John Anderson fixed the glitch and they’re heading back out, new battery on board, and torque up to spec.
And we feel a few raindrops……..

Batteries Are Your Friend. Most Of The Time

JoeMegatron hasn’t been holding the power it should, so the S&T crew pulled apart the ‘bot’s battery pack last night and found trouble.
The machine is designed around four 12-volt batteries for a total of 48 volts. Should power drop into the mid 30-volt range the “brain” acts as if it has severe caffeine withdrawal and begins to stutter and stammer, resulting in directional confusion. That’s not a recipe for IGVC success.
Turns out bad cells in one 12-volt pack were pulling down the whole system, so they yanked it out and sent a crew out to buy a new one. The remaining 36-volt pack is enough to power JoeMegatron, but is dangerously close to the voltage-reset level. And that’s not good.
They are still out there trying to qualify with one arm tied behind Joe’s back while other teams are competing in the first obstacle rounds.
Rain? Not yet, but it’s coming and looks like it’ll be with us for much of the day…………….Oh. Joy.

Rolling In The Rain?

Right now a bunch of bleary-eyed robotics geeks are lined up for a group photo, but they can be forgiven for looking over their shoulders at the same time.
A band of rain is poised to sweep northward through through the Detroit area. That will certainly wipe out confusing shadows, but it might dilute the lane markers and leave robots wandering (wondering?) off in all directions. The big fear is the rain will arrive just as JoeMegatron and the Miners are qualifying for today’s finals, but so far there’s no indication of lightning in these clouds.
And that would be good for those delicate neural circuit boards that “control” (if you want to use the term) these contraptions.
Gonna be interesting. And wet.

If It’s Not The Batteries, It’s The IGCV Evening Shade

Roughly fifty teams registered for the 2012 Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition but just about of third of them are no-shows at the 20th anniversary version of this robot scramble. Of the thirty two teams that migrated to Michigan from Japan, Canada, India and the U.S., only fifteen have qualified to run tomorrow’s obstacle course.
As yet the Miners haven’t joined that group, but it’s not cause for concern. James Anderson said “we’d worked out the bugs in the AI system but when we started down the qualifying course JoeMegaton’s batteries ran low and that caused the emergency shut-down circuit to misfire. We ran a battery-charging cycle then headed back out to qualify, but the late-afternoon shadows seemed to confuse our sensors, preventing us from qualifying. We believe we’ll qualify first thing tomorrow morning and be able to run in most of the day’s heats.”
Shadows shouldn’t be an issue, but washed-out boundary lines might be. Morning showers/afternoon storms are predicted, so any ‘bots adjusted for high-contrast sensing may have trouble in the rain.
So say nothing of students and officials who must follow these metal machines across wide-open fields when there’s lightning about.

The IGVC 1,000-Mile Stare

Each June robot teams from all over the world migrate to Rochester Hills, Michigan for the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, an event that seems to consist of three elements: design presentation, staring at computer monitors for hours at a time, then following your autonomous robot as it attempts to not run into anything.
IGVCDSC_3243.jpg
If the robot teams aren’t practicing, qualifying, attempting to qualify, or rolling through the obstacle course, the builders are fixated on some unfathomable hieroglyphical video language reminiscent of WWII Navaho “Wind Talkers.” Many sit immobile, oblivious to sunrise, sunset, missed meals or even Anime, in hopes they can inject that little bit of artificial intelligence into their battery-powered aluminum chassis.
Chief mechanical engineer Nick Marik says “JoeMegatron’s chassis is doing fine, and this afternoon we’ll head to the field to qualify.” Tomorrow is when most of the machines tackle the obstacle course.

Robo-Miners Take 8th On IGVC Autonomous Course!

IGVCSUN_3040.jpg It’s taken harried IGCV officials nearly a month to crunch the mountains of data, but the news is out! The S&T Robotics Competition Team rocketed to eight place, their “best ever” autonomous challenge course finish since the Miners started in the event in 2005!
J”omega”Tron’s redesign, and then “re-“ redesign once the Miners got to the Michigan event paid off with a quick-handling and energy-efficient machine. That’s not to say that there weren’t challenges a-plenty but it was the improved obstacle-recognition software that did the trick. The AI systems have been the thorn in the Miners’ backsides since the early days, and despite pretty erratic showings in previous IGVC events the Miners kept learning, experimenting and testing, and this year it all seemed to come together nicely. Compared to previous years the ‘bot seemed to launch itself down the course, deftly swinging past obstruction after obstruction.
Lastly (and we’re gonna get in SO much trouble for mentioning this), 2011 was also the first time the team had enough sense to chose to elect a woman as team leader. We think for all the technical progress and problems of the seven years, it should not be considered a coincidence that having a woman in charge equates to success. It may not be politically correct, but we try hard to “speaka da truth” around here.
Great job, Miriah!

Mea Culpa. Or, Why Can’t These Computers Talk To Each Other?

For the past few days we’ve been blathering on about “JomegaTron” and the great job the Miner Robotics Team has been doing.
We’ve tried real hard to insert the Greek letter “Ω” in the robot’s name so the text matches the robot’s logo emblazoned on the front.
It worked Friday through Monday, but Today? No. The Omega sign shows up as a question mark “?“in the text, and that’s an ironic symbol for our confusion.
We’re trying to fix the code, but just like the robots “….it worked yesterday, why won’t it work today?”
Technology. Sheesh.
Update: Right after we posted this comment/gripe, things started working again. Today? Nope, back to “?” instead of the Omega sign.
Go figure!

S&T Robotics Competition Team’s Best Event Ever!

RobotDSC_3138.jpgThe Miner robotics crew has to be feeling pretty good after their trip back from Michigan Tuesday.
The official scoring hasn’t been released yet, but we do know this:
Only about 50% of the teams in attendance managed to qualify for the obstacle course.
S&T’s 174-foot run would have tied for 8th place in 2010.
J”omega”Tron’s revamped drive system was a huge success, proving that new ideas aren’t always as successful as the old ones. Just because you can make a project more sophisticated doesn’t mean you should.
At one point Sunday the Miners had the longest run of the day as several other qualifying schools struggled to go more than a few dozen yards.
Miriah’s crew tweaked the GPS inputs for Monday’s final runs, but as in real life, conditions are subject to change. Event officials sometimes move obstacles to keep machines from “learning” the course too well, and that became a problem for several robots, including S&T’s. It wasn’t that the vehicles couldn’t handle the obstacle relocation, the issue was the change uncovered a big patch of dead grass. The few machines made it that far interpreted the brown spot as another vertical obstruction, so per their programming they’d refuse to go farther.
Our Jordanian friends? They were thrilled to qualify early Monday afternoon, but we haven’t heard how they did on the playing field. We were hoping they get the “Rookie of the Year” award but it didn’t work out. They certainly overcame a lot of challenges, so we couldn’t think of a more worthy candidate.