Student engineering wars: Robotics teams compete for glory

Oakland University is sending its engineering students to do battle. Within the next month, three different student organizations at OU will be entering into separate engineering competitions, doing things such as building formula cars, autonomous ground robots and flying drones.

Auto Engineers

The first competition is the Michigan branch of the Formula Society of Automotive Engineers competition, which began May 12 at the Michigan International Speedway. Teams in the competition must design, build and test their own prototype formula racer. The cars are tested in fields such as acceleration, braking, fuel economy and endurance. The second part of the competition is to present the car to a marketing test group as a viable production vehicle.

The competition has strict limits on what kind of parts can be used in the formula cars. For example, the rules limit teams to using a 600 cc engine, so the OU Society of Automotive Engineers has decided to use a motorcycle engine for its formula racer.

“It makes it so students have to tune the engine,” Barry Dodson said.

The members of OUSAE said that they have put a tremendous amount of time into the car so far, and they expect this week to be much more.

“I’ve come in before and [the other team members] were asleep in the shop,” Kirk McGuire said.

Along with the time and effort the members put into tuning the car to make sure it runs well, President Matt Schmalenberg said that the driver of the car is also an important factor in how well they do during testing. He said they may use the best drivers on the team for the endurance part of the competition, while for the acceleration competition they may use their lightest drivers. Schmalenberg said that the top schools in the endurance test would probably be determined on driver skill.

“Even though we all want to drive, it’s outweighed by our desire to do our best in the competition,” Schmalenberg said. Many OUSAE members on the team have common interests.

“Anyone with an interest in cars or anything that goes fast, we encourage them to join,” John Smerczak said.

Oakland Robotics

Another group currently working on a project is the Oakland Robotics Association, who is currently developing a robot for the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition on June 5. The competition brings together engineering students from different fields just as the SAE competition does. But because the vehicle they are building is unmanned and operates based on programming instructions, it brings computer programming into the fold as well.

The IGVC stipulates that vehicles must complete a series of challenges including following a course, avoiding obstacles and navigating using waypoints. The ORA plans to do this using a camera, onboard sensors and GPS data. But they also have something new that they didn’t possess last year: omni-directional wheels.

“The wheels let us move in any direction we want, not just forwards and backwards,” ORA President Micho Radovnikovich said as he demonstrated the vehicle.

The vehicle’s wheels enable it to move forward and backwards as well as rotate in place, but they also let the robot move sideways. The ORA said it hopes that these wheels will give the robot an edge over the other teams during the competition.

The robot currently moves by a remote control, but Radovnikovich said that by the time of the competition, the movement will be fully automated.

Pavan Vempaty said that part of his duties on the vehicle is to create an artificial intelligence for the robot so that it can navigate around obstacles. He has to create a program to coordinate between the sensors and cameras and ensure that the robot knows when and where to move.

“Until we actually go outside and test it, we can’t be sure how it will work,” Vempaty said.

Vempaty said that another thing they would probably need to do is set up a switchbox so that the robot could be swapped at will between autonomous mode and manual mode.

Alex Pawlowski, who worked on the mechanical aspects of the vehicle, said the technology they’re working with has many real world applications. He said the Navy had been looking into some of the technology, and the omni-directional wheels could even have common everyday applications like parallel parking.

Although the robot is now moving around freely, Pawlowski said he has a lot of work in front of him, as he needs to alter the platform of the robot to carry a heavy payload.

Team member Steve Grzebyk said that because the robot is more modular than it has been in previous years, it should be easier to fix when things go wrong. But like the OUSAE, they expect at least a few sleepless nights between now and the time of the competition.

Aerial Systems Club

Another OU student organization is creating a robot not unlike ORA’s vehicle, but with one notable exception: it flies. The Aerial Systems Club has been building its “quadrotor” in preparation for the Student Unmanned Systems (UAS) competition on June 17.

Similarly to the IGVC, the goal of the teams entered into the UAS is to build a vehicle that autonomously navigates a GPS course. ASC’s quadrotor model for this year builds off a similar model from last year that led ASC to fifth place in the competition, winning them $3600.

According to ASC advisor Osamah Rawashdeh, OU’s entry into the UAS is unique because it is the only vehicle of its kind in the competition: a helicopter-like vehicle powered by four equidistant propeller motors. It has an advantage from the other vehicles due to its ability to take off and land vertically.

“All the other teams buy their own remote control planes,” he said.

Though ASC doesn’t have to worry about avoiding obstacles during their test runs, they do have to worry about balance.

ASC President Rami Abousleiman said that practical applications of a robot drone like this include being a floating camera on a battlefield or doing surveying and reconnaissance after there’s a disaster like a fire.

Videos: – BY RORY MCCARTY, The Oakland Post – BY Aerial Systems Club, Oakland University

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