Aluminator Finally Qualifies, Then Struggles On Course

The Miners’ soon-to-be-retired mechanical platform finally qualified for the IGVC autonomous course late yesterday afternoon. Hours of troubleshooting finally got Aluminator to the playing field, some six hours after things started. One warm-up run had the machine avoiding lines and obstacles; the second attempt fell victim to a tired battery.
Permit me to step out of character here and provide you with excerpts of team leader James Anderson’s email to his teammates. First, his personal comments to his friends, and in the extended text, his play-by-play of the competition. I think these comments count for more than if they’d won the event. Please give a read to what being on a design team is all about……….
I’m proud of everything our team has accomplished this year and I think we have built a solid platform and next year we will have the ability to blow everyone away. We really pulled things together at the competition and I am proud of our performance.
I hope someone finds some value in what we did. If you want more, Frank Fitzpatrick did a great job off putting photos and stories on our website blog.
“Our team really stepped it up at competition and I think that if we were not forced to use all our time on the GPS qualification, we would have been able to make a good showing in the guidance challenge. Every one did a great job at competition and we were able to fix almost every problem we encountered. Next year should be amazing with
Aluminator 2.0 nearing completion and a year to develop on our already impressive AI.”
“Thanks to everyone for working so hard at competition and throughout the year. I have enjoyed my Presidency and I am looking forward to my role as Treasurer next year. Good luck, Miriah! (I’m freeeeee (ish)).”

[Read more…]

GPS Software Glitch Resolved, But Now Drive Batteries Are Dead

Aluminator’s previously-reliable GPS system acted up early this morning and wasn’t getting the proper response, so Kevin, Ken and Mike had to go six programming levels deep to debug device drivers. They had a hunch a serial-to-USB adapter might be corrupting a program so they switched it out and things improved,
then they had to determine why the program would run fine on one laptop but not on the identical laptop that actually helps run the machine. Eventually they got it all working and went out to practice. Everything was going fine until the batteries croaked. It’ll take about an hour to charge the batteries and finally qualify, then it’s straight to the autonomous challenge. Stay tuned.
IGVC has been running autonomous course heats all morning, but after four hours of “racing”, only two teams made it as far as the halfway point on the field. At the wide points of the figure-eight track there are switchbacks made up of construction barrels. That may be too kind a description because those obstacles are more like hairpin turns. VERY tight turns. Each robot must also provide cargo space for a 20-LB wooden box, craftily marked “payload”, to prove the machines can perform a function besides just tooling around on the lawn.
Some teams make it a third of the way around the course, some barely make it 10 feet. Many robots are bare-bones systems, one as simple as duct-taping a desk-top CPU to the simplest of platforms, while others are very creative.
Pixar’s WALL-E is here today, complete with debris from the movie set, and another team seems to have chromed up a Weber BBQ grill as its body work. The “Weber-Bot” has a unique vertical camera that uses a mirror to see 360 degrees, and developed a software program to correct spacial distortion.
WALL-E is just plain cute.

Aluminator Continues To Impress

A revitalized Miner robot is forging ahead in the ’10 IGVC. The team’s plans to qualify by noon were postponed when they were selected as a design finalist, and by the time their presentation was over rain showers had come back to the field of play.
A little waterlogged practice showed that Aluminator was doing a good job at recognizing the obstacles, but was only hinting at responding. If you listened closely you could almost feel it “want” to turn*. That meant that Kevin Howe and Ken Boyko had to make some data point adjustments so that the machine would turn more aggressively. It took four or five adjustments before things began to move the way the team wanted, and it was time for cautious smiles.
Their first attempt at qualifying for the critical obstacle course stalled a, so another adjustment and it was back on the course. This time an umbrella-clad Aluminator sailed through the course, and easily passed the “E-stop” remote-controlled emergency kill button.
DSC_0176_2Rob.jpgThe Miners were thrilled to qualify for tomorrow’s race, but the official asked “have you passed the GPS waypoint test yet?” “What waypoint test?” was the S&T response. Turns out the rules have changed some since late year, and no one on the team caught that little, uh, detail. A look at the rain and the late hour, and they decided “we’ll do it tomorrow morning’, because the machine already has a proven GPS guidance system.
Dry out, get dinner, and relax a little. Oh yeah, and pick up that Design Finals award.
*You know you’ve been around these machines too long when you start to think you know what the machine is thinking.

Engineering Employment 101

Lesson #1: Many new engineers have a choice in their first job; management fast track or hands-on engineering. One soon-to-graduate Miner said “I’d MUCH rather work in the engineering department at my first job, because if I want to make a design unnecessarily complicated for the heck of it, all my co-workers will be on the same page.”
Lesson #2: If you want something unnecessarily complicated, give it to a guy. Rube Goldberg wasn’t a woman, after all………..
Lesson #3: If you ask a male engineer how long it will take to design something, the answer will almost always be “oh, about twenty minutes.” That answer will, of course, have no basis in reality.
Lesson #4: If you REALLY want a project done on time, under budget, and with a certain elegance, give the job to a woman.
Lesson #5: If you give the project to a guy, he’ll pad the budget as an excuse to buy that power tool that he always wanted.
Lesson #6: If a woman runs the shop, the floor will be clean and every tool will be in its place. If a guy is in charge the mantra is “I KNOW I have one of those around here somewhere.”
More lessons to follow………

Robotics Team, Aluminator Make Design Finals!!!!

There are fifty eight CORRECTION! Only 48 showed up! IGVC robotics teams from six countries at this event, divided into two groups, and the Miners just scored a real coup!
S&T’s crew made the Top 3 in Group B Design, and now get to present their design before a more stringent set of judges. Making design finals earns the Miners at least a $250 check, and a smiling James Anderson says “now we are playing for real money!” The $250 goes to the 6th-place team, and if the robotics team moves up the list, so does the prize money.
This is the Miner’s first major accomplishment in four years of IGVC efforts. Ken Boyko, Mike Chrisko and James just raced back to the hotel to don their “Sunday-go-to- presentation clothes” (it IS Sunday, you know), and will run a quick rehearsal just before their 2:00 p.m. time slot.
Meanwhile they’ll postpone qualifying attempts until after presentation finals. Kevin Howe will take the time add a little more video data to Aluminator and they’ll head out to the field. It’ll probably be tomorrow before we hear how much farther S&T had advanced, but as soon as we know, you will.

High School Robotics Students Are Pumped! College Kids, Not So Much

DSC_0132Rob.jpgEarly Sunday morning at the annual Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC) at Oakland (MI) University. Exhausted college robotics teams are slowly staggering into the main event tent after several days of travel, coding, tweeking, repairing, testing and head scratching. Anything but sleeping.
Meanwhile, about a dozen high school FIRST Robotics Competition (FRC) teams are in the next arena where the playing field is set up, music is pumping, supporters are excited, competitors are cheering, and everyone is smiling. Not so much in the collegiate arena.
You may recall that the Miner Robotics Team planned a new machine, Aluminator 2.0, a four-wheel-drive machine for the ’10 competition, one that would handle the physical course with ease. Well, that didn’t happen. 2.0’s platform wasn’t quite ready this year, and rather than head to the Detroit suburbs with an untested machine, they opted to concentrate on the original Aluminator’s brain, S&T’s weak point for some years now.
This is the year that the RoboMiners hope to finally break past the autonomous course qualifying mark. Their three previous attempts always ran into trouble. Coding problems, wheel encoders going haywire, bad connections, you name it, but this year they’ve made remarkable progress. A simpler mantra of “sense, think, act” is the 2010 focus, and combined with LOTS of early testing means S&T should do well. Team leader James Anderson says “we plan to qualify by noon today, and after that we’ll refine our GPS system for the navigation challenge. That’s a separate event from the autonomous course tomorrow, with smaller prize money, but it’s still important.”
We’ll be reporting from Oakland University through tomorrow, and we’ll also be slipping in some reports on what Solar Miner VII is doing. Their big races start just 10 days from now!

Now That The Holiday Is Over

It’s been a quiet weekend in Rolla. Graduation is over, the campus is nearly void of students, and summer classes haven’t started yet.
Almost void, that is. The semester is done, but that doesn’t mean the intercollegiate competition season is over, since two S&T student design teams have yet to show their stuff. This week the Miner Robotics Team heads back to Rochester, MI for the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC), where student teams from all over the country turn their robots loose in hopes they’ll find their way home. It is a small-scale event, and coming “home” consists of the robot navigating its way through a big figure-eight course full of obstacles and turns. Last year no team made it all the way through, so points are awarded on distance and time.
The Robo-Miners have made lots of improvements to Aluminator’s brain, and with James Anderson’s leadership and Kevin Boyko’s technical help the team has the ‘bot seeing better than ever. They scrapped plans to build a complete new machine, and concentrated on doing a better lobotomy for 2010. We’ll report more from the northern Detroit suburbs Saturday evening, if not earlier.
Just a week later, the Solar Car Team, probably Missouri S&T’s most-recognized student design project, turns south to the Motorsport Ranch (MR) in Cresson, TX. MR owns a challenging road course where performance driving is the game; a playground for big kids, when you get right down to it. MR hosts the Formula Sun Gran Prix, a shake-down cruise for about 15 international solar car teams. FSGP examines safety, rules compliance, and road-worthiness of the cars that hope to race in the American Solar Challenge(ASC). The Cresson winner earns the pole position in the Broken Arrow, Oklahoma-to-Chicago ASC race June 20th-26th, which retraces portions of previous solar car races.
Those who think summers are for goofing off or working construction aren’t very familiar with S&T’s programs, we’d bet.

Crop Circles And Artificial Intelligence

Never heard of a crop circle? That’s when some joker tramps around at night in a hay field making patterns that some people are convinced are made by ET’s kin. That’s a little like what the S&T Robotics Competition Team has been doing lately.
LionsparkDSC_0165_2.jpgThe Rolla Lions Club graciously served up a corner of their beautiful park for the ’10 crew’s practice area. The Miners laid out a simulation course that mimics the IGVC challenge (which NO team completed last year, BTW) that involves James Anderson, some white paint, and a 4-inch brush.
The IGVC (Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition) is basically a figure-eight (or infinity symbol) obstacle course over which autonomous robots must run while staying within the lines and not running over anything. The Miner Robotics Team has a great motive platform but sometimes struggles with Aluminator’s brain. This year they think they’ve finally worked out the brain cramps because the sensors are finally gathering the data that the AI can properly interpret.
The on-board computer processes the info, but Aluminator also has Wi-Fi so it can share the data with its designers*. Monday’s readings show the ‘bot has great recognition of the boundary lines, so the next move is to adjust the sensitivity so that random noise pixels don’t play havoc with its reactions.
When you set up a replica course, you have to take into account all variables. The June event takes place at midday, but class schedules often mandate that spring practice takes place near sunset. LionsparkDSC_0189.jpgThis affected Aluminator because when it turned westward the sun’s glare on the sheet metal blinded the cameras so it couldn’t see the boundaries. It does much better when it turns back toward the east, so the temporary solution could be to cover the sheet metal with a dark matter board to reduce the glare.
*This data serves as feedback for the designers. If the robot “decides” to wander off course in search of a pretty flower, the operator can only watch helplessly as all that work goes down the drain. They can’t interfere, except to hit the emergency “abort” switch, drag it off the course, and go back to the coding room.

Last (?) Report from Detroit

Isn’t technology wonderful? All power on the site is now down. Not because of lighting or high winds, but because the huge generator shot craps and started to smoke. All displays are down so there is no way to report any scoring.
On the field of battle they tell us that approximately 30 teams (out of 50+) have qualified. Of those 30 teams only ten have made it as far as half-way through the course. Of those ten, one robot has made it as far as 80% of the course.
None, zero, zilch, nada, completed the course. You could say thirty teams are tied for 1st place and the Miners, who have finally run out of time, are tied with twenty other schools for 2nd.
See you back in Rolla.

A Partial Robotics Retraction

We spoke yesterday about how the Robotics Team completed their competition vehicle early enough to do extensive testing, and that was certainly the case. You’d think that weeks or months of testing would result in a competition-ready robot, but we are only two hours before the competition ends and Aluminator is still not behaving properly. The S&T crew just came back from the test track where the ‘bot simply turned in circles. When pressed for an explanation the team admitted that the AI system had been properly tested on a simulation program that, uh, wasn’t the same software programRobot code #3.jpg used on the actual robot. To make matters worse, the student who wrote and tested the program wasn’t able to attend the IGVC so our code-writers are desperately trying to develop “work arounds”. They still hold out hope that they’ll qualify by the “skin of their teeth” and get a run at the competition course but even if Aluminator gets a good run today we won’t know the final event standings until some days or weeks later.
Stay tuned for late reports.