Aluminator Gets Rolling

Rolling bot #1.jpgThe Miners are coming down to the wire in writing code changes at the annual Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition here in the Detroit suburbs. Richard Allen is leading the frenzied effort to get the machine “thinking” on its own. One student said that on sunny days the sensors would easily recognize the white lines, but when the robot approached the plywood bridges the painted platform would reflect too much light which Aluminator would then recognize as distracting spots, so some code had to be re-written to solve that problem.
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On this slope Aluminator had no trouble recognizing the lines but wet conditions caused the tires to lose traction on the ramp, partly because the trailing rear wheel was getting caught on the ramp’s edge. It took the ‘bot several running starts to clear the ramp edge and drive over the bridge.
The Miners have the robot back in the barn while they attempt to work out the last bugs.
In the meantime most teams’ work is done and there is little to do when your robot is not on the course. Here are a few ways that students pass the time:
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Trashbag Chic

Trashcan chic #1.jpg A second round of heavy rain is sweeping through the competition “polo” grounds but the robots continue to motor on. Tarps, umbrellas, and other forms of waterproofing are being pressed into service to keep the projects dry. We haven’t seen any “magic blue smoke” yet rising from machines, but it’s still early.
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In the meantime Missouri S&T has been recognized by the judges for “donating” their great-looking tent to the robot starting line, where teams whose machines are on the course can watch in a degree of comfort. Aluminator is still under the “big top” while the Miners are still trying to resolve some code issues. This is an all-day event so there is still optimism for getting the machine on the course.

Robotics Update

Imagine this scenario……….hundreds of thousands of dollar of high-tech equipment, 50+ robots in an open field that all have metal masts sticking up in the air, you are working in huge tent with great big metal support poles, and you are surrounded by thunder, lightning, and pouring rain.
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Do they stop the competition?? NAH!!! We got the NAVY out here!! They can’t be afraid of a little water, can they?
Disclaimer: We make fun of the Navy, but this writer’s nephew graduated from the Naval Academy last month, was the starting goalie for the USNA’s lacrosse team, and won the Academy’s prestigious Thompson Trophy here
Way to go, Tommy!!

Geeks? What Geeks?

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Sorry, we couldn’t resist. “Mr. Transformer” is back again for the third year in a row and this time he has brought along one of his relatives.
Getting back to reality, we’re getting a few raindrops so teams are mounting umbrellas and tarps over their valuable projects. Senator Carl Levin is addressing the opening ceremonies and recognizing the efforts of these 50+ teams in advancing the technology that will save lives of those who protect our nation and help the U.S. economy recover.

This Should Be Interesting……..

Rain threatens, and the lane markers painted on the ground are water-based. This could be like herding cats tomorrow………………
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Aluminator’s sensors are having a little trouble picking up the white lines painted on the ground, and today’s cloud cover has cut the contrast between the grass and the lines so that has been a problem. We saw a few paint buckets on the sidelines late today but it’s not clear if we’ll get a new paint job or not. Even if we do rain threatens most of tomorrow (in fact it is sprinkling right now) so the lines might not even exist by the time S&T’s Aluminator hits the course. Wonder how you score a machine’s performance between the lines when there are no lines to see?
For some reason our Miners didn’t get to qualify on the test track today before theSunglasses robot.jpg practice area was shut down. They’ll have to get an early start and hope their veteran chassis will remain water tight in the bad weather and its stereo camera systems (on the right, with the cool sunglasses) won’t pick up any distracting water droplets.
Here are some shots that show the ups and downs of student-built autonomous robots: Wisconsin #1.jpg Wisconsin’s machine seemed to handle the first practice obstacles with aplomb, as its jubilant crew clearly shows. Just minutes later the same crew was……….well, you can figure out from their expressions………….Wisconsin #3.jpg………..encountering a radically different situation just twenty yards past their bridge success.
If last year was any indication these little “aberrations” will be far more common than teams would wish. Successfully navigating one obstacle is no guarantee of future success; each new turn, ramp, switchback or construction barrel is a whole new world to these machines; a source of great tension for the builders and great entertainment (or high comedy) for the spectators. Any robot that goes as far as half way through the course creates a real buzz in the crowd; people start whispering “Could this one make it?” Could this really be the one?” And the farther the machine goes, the more the crowd reacts so you can pretty much figure that not many machines make it through the entire course.
And we haven’t even covered the potential havoc that getting rain inside your circuit boards could cause.
Lastly, we mentioned that Aluminator’s motor control problems have been fixed. Here are two examples of how much low-end torque S&T’s machine now has, courtesy of Mike Chrisco here and Robert Adams here.
Who says you can’t have a little fun at these events?

Let The Robotics Games Begin!

The S&T Robotics Competition team has been moving well through the qualifying events so far. Yesterday the ‘bot builders did a great job on the design event, an oral briefing on all aspects of the machine’s design, and today they plan to qualify Aluminator’s mechanical systems on the practice course. The important issue was not just that they did a great briefing job, but it proves they had completed the robot early enough in the design year to test its systems, work out most of the bugs, and above all, repeatedly rehearse their presentation until they knew it forward and backward. Chris Vincent tells us the judges were quite impressed by the machine’s well-organized system layout and circuitry as well as a short video clip that proved the design’s power and robustness.
While the Miners were disappointed that they didn’t make the design finals* after a very polished delivery (only 5 or 6 out of 50+ teams made it to finals) they think they have a good shot at a top-10 finish in that category, which (with a tip o’ the hat to St. Pat) would be one of their best ever ranking.
Last year’s motor controller problems seem to have been solved. Some months ago the ‘bot builders realized Aluminator’s motor controllers were undersized for the drive robot code.jpgmotors’ amperage requirements so they upgraded the controllers. Now the beefed-up system is quite capable of throwing its own weight around, and will do fine regardless of the weather.
There are a lot of different design ideas from which to draw inspiration at these events. Last year the Miners were enthralled by a tank-tread design that really seemed like a cool idea. While some more experienced (meaning old) observers thought it was a Rube-Goldberg approach that added risk and didn’t significantly improve on Aluminator’s 2008 mechanical systems, the Robo-Miners were all fired up and ready to re-invent the wheel. Ignoring the fact that the crew struggled with the Artificial Intelligence (AI) design last year (think robotic Alzheimers; all dressed up and no idea where it was going) the ME side of the team was determined to have a robotic tank.
Red Bull.jpgFortunately, cooler heads prevailed during the design year so the Miners opted to retain Aluminator’s basic platform and concentrate on more critical autonomous guidance systems. That has already paid off because the Miners mechanics are largely sitting on their hands so far today. That is NOT to say they weren’t busy overnight or that problems won’t yet surface, but all seems quiet right now. Better to be rehearsing your design presentation than yelling about a missing wrench or broken motor controller, eh?
Generally these machines use electricity for their motive power. Nearly every vehicle uses batteries for stored power but some teams use gas generators towed behind the robot to charge the power packs. One team has a kid’s-sized ATV controlled (at least we hope so) by computer and rumor has it that a California team even has a hydrogen fuel cell. The “Ecole de Technologie Superieure team out of Montreal (right) clearly has everyone beat with a great fuel sponsorship deal.
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Meanwhile a FIRST Robotics exhibition in the background (left) is lending a circus atmosphere to the goings-on. The college teams have been busy catching up on rest, repairing drive systems, and writing code (ESPECIALLY writing code) while the FIRST teams have been cheering wildly through a series of double-elimination matches If you’ve never been to a FIRST event, think amazingly complex technical wizardry mixed with a rock concert atmosphere, and a touch of professional wrestling (you know, the stupid fake stuff) thrown in for a little spice.
The students at the annual Intelligent Ground Vehicle event are a courteous, trusting and TRUSTWORTHY** bunch. DSC_0086_2.jpgThe “pits” consist of a nearly 200′ ft long tent crammed with tables and chairs, and power tools, cameras and above all, laptop computers are everywhere. Need to take your robot out to practice? No problem! Need to take a nap? Go for it! You could leave your equipment unattended all day long and no one would dream of disturbing your gear. If you are trying to take a photo of the field operations people will either stop while you shoot or walk around BEHIND you rather than risk bothering you. That’s really special!
Lastly, we can always count of S&T alums to support their educational descendents. Last night a loyal group of MSM/UMR/S&T alums treated the team to dinner and offered the kind of moral support that keeps these teams motivated. The hosts learned about the robot, the team’s design strategy, and how they were enjoying the Michigan weather. In response to the students’ feedback S&T alum Don Statler (CE ’56 ) showed up early this morning with a climatic C.A.R.E package that he and his wife Dee put together, a shopping bag full of sweatshirts to help keep the Miners warm during their all-night shifts working on Aluminator, ’cause it was kind of chilly at 5:00 a.m. in a big tent.
*We’re normally loathe to point fingers (to do so we’d have to identify the team) but we understand one top design finalist student (ahem!) design team had their professor make their design presentation. What kind of learning opportunity do you get if you can’t put your ideas forward as your best work? Hmmm, or IS it your best work……….?
We imagine that any S&T design team advisor who wanted to be the spokesman would politely be told “No, thank you” by the students. If that didn’t work it’s even money that the team would become more insistent. If that STILL didn’t work there’s always old reliable duct tape………
**We’d say all the participants were all good Boy Scouts (trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc,) but there are quite a few female team members on the teams; one young lady is even wearing blazing pink stiletto heels. Did we mention the tent has a dirt floor?

Early Reports From On-Site Robotics Team

Chris Vincent reports from Detroit that “not much to report again during our first day (Friday) here. Check in went well. We spent the day working on the robot (finding out that putting magnetometers next to large magnetic-field inducing motors is bad), wandering around town (to find grocery stores and late-night food), and checking out other teams’ entries (apparently you can turn a four wheeler into a robot). Weather’s holding out (no rain) and is surprisingly cool considering past competitions.
Sunday morning, around 1:00 a.m. Chris goes on to say “as far as today, a lot went on. We were informed about an hour before our design presentation that not all of our paperwork was filled out correctly (the same paperwork we had submitted four weeks prior). However, after a couple of frantic phone calls and faxes with our advisor, Dr. Wunsch*, everything got straightened out.
The Design Presentation went very well. The judges were very impressed with our professionalism, the flow of our presentation, and the design of our robot. Unfortunately, we failed to make the finals (top 6) but are still holding out hope that we achieved a top ten finish (even though we won’t hear about that for several weeks).
On the autonomous side, programming is still progressing. Our sensors are looking very good, and we plan to qualify Aluminator, complete with stylish shades, tomorrow morning. No hardware failures so far (knock on wood).
*While these teams are pretty much autonomous (like they hope their ‘bot will be), hovering in the background is a staff or faculty advisor who serves as the uber-source of technical knowledge. In a pinch the advisor can throw his weight behind the team in cases of mis-communication. In this case back in Rolla Dr. Don Wunsch apparently became the team’s attorney and helped the event judges “see the light”. Don is a soft-spoken, all-round great guy who really knows his stuff. Just don’t get in a chess game with him.
More later today.

Missouri S&T Autonomous Robotics Team Hits The Road

This weekend marks the annual robot-roping contest known as the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC), held at Rochester Hills, Michigan, a little north of Detroit.
The Miners’ Robotic Competition Team has struggled at the event the past few years (to be fair, so do about 80-90% of the international teams on hand), but they are cautiously optimistic this year that their robot can operate between the lines, avoid obstacles, and overcome various terrain changes, all the while finding its way to the end of a convoluted “race” course without human intervention or guidance.
Consider this a “teaser”, as we’ll have more reports from the field* Sunday and Monday.
In the meantime here is team leader Chris Vincent’s road journal:
“So no pictures today (roads are all generally the same – yellow line, dashed white line, solid white line). Good news however: despite leaving an hour behind schedule, with the help of a few 17 minute meal/bathroom/fuel stops and a generous itinerary put together by a forward thinking administrator who knows his team all too well, we were able to make check into our hotel rooms exactly on time (10:30). All even with the fact that we saw more construction cones today than our robot will see on courses in its entire life.
Bed now. Register tomorrow.
Chris Vincent
(Forward Thinking Administrator)”
* The field is just that. A big, gently rolling field good for touch football, frisbee, and parking for a nearby performing arts venue. Check in Sunday night for updates.

IGVC Robotics Results Are In!

Officials from the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition have finally released the scoring results, and S&T has something to brag about! The IDE rookie robot builders’ "triMAXion", riding high on their 6th-place Design Award, landed a very respectable 14th place out of 26 qualifying teams, many of which have been in this event for some time.
"Aluminator" suffered badly when a system that recorded its location failed. The machine could see its surroundings and proceed cautiously, but couldn’t "remember" where it had been. The best analogy we can think of is the wacky "Dory" from "Finding Nemo". Plenty of enthusiasm and good intentions, but lacking the synapses to bring it all together. Suffered from a robotic lobotomy, one could say.
Anyway, look for Stereo Optikon to make a strong showing next year.

While We Wait For Competition Results……………

We understand that the official competition results may take several more days, so we thought we’d take a serious moment to tell you more about this event. In our view IGVC is focused on sending machines where we don’t want to send people, for reasons of economy or safety. To that end there were many industry and government representatives in attendance at the event, including one especially heavy hitter,

Senator Carl Levin, Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senator Levin toured the event and described to the students how unmanned systems have saved American lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. There was even one example on hand of a battle-damaged robot, so that students could get an up-close idea of the threats faced in that part of the world.

Senator Levin commented on how important the students’ work is, because these girls and guys, from schools big and small, will be directly involved in building the next generations of autonomous vehicles that will serve our nation, and society in general.

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