Robotics Team Moves Forward at Dunes

Senior Graham Montgomery, his notebook computer in one hand, prepares to set the team's robot, Jack, loose at Great Sand Dunes.
They came. They saw. They made progress – even if it was just in one direction at a time.

Western State Colorado University’s team in the NASA’s Colorado Space Grant Consortium Robotics Challenge traveled to Great Sand Dunes National Park in early April to test their Mars-Rover-like robot, dubbed “Jack,” against those from other colleges in the state. All did not go as hoped, but …

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“The fact that we went forward made our robot more successful than many of the other teams,” reports Dr. Suzanne Taylor, assistant professor of Physics and the team’s advisor. She noted only seven or eight of 15 competing robots could actually move, let alone navigate an obstacle course to reach a NASA-planted beacon. “‘This looked great on paper or it worked last week,’ were common themes.”

And such talk characterized conversations concerning Jack, too.

Jack the Robot casts a long shadow at Great Sand Dunes.

“We had a bit of a crisis on Wednesday (before the Saturday competition),” Taylor recalls. “There was a wiring issue, and it fried the motor controller. The new one showed up about five minutes before we left” Gunnison for the two-hour drive to the Dunes.

That set the team to scrambling as they met with other competitors at an Alamosa motel and presented Jack to the assembled young scientists. Lead programmer Graham Montgomery installed the new circuit board, getting it to receive commands from his computer. But as soon as he unplugged its USB cable, it “would send a command and just stop,” Taylor says.

As the team continued working, Taylor watched the clock. At 11pm, she abandoned plans to camp at the dunes and checked into the motel. As night dragged toward morning, they abandoned hopes for getting Jack to navigate and focused on the mechanics. Montgomery found he could control each drive wheel’s speed, so the robot could travel a curved route, as well as rolling straight. He and the others hit the sack about 12:30.

The next morning, at the dunes, they saw many of their ideas worked. Jack’s extended legs and hardy wheels – designed and built by students Koleman Williams and Ted Romanetz – dealt well with the varied terrain, climbing across rocks and other obstacles. With National Park Service Rangers looking on, they even created some new obstacles to test the assembled robots. The biggest mechanical issue was the long legs needed a bit more rigidity.

The key thing Jack lacked – and few other competitors had – was working navigation. Montgomery and his programming partner, Marc Ditmore, had tried to integrate a tiny camera that would allow the robot to actually see the course. Well before the day at the dunes, they had abandoned that idea in favor of infrared and ultrasonic sensors. But the motor-controller crisis had subverted those solutions, too, eliminating the last days for integration and troubleshooting.

In the end, the team made the best of it, sending the robot through obstacle courses, with Montgomery adjusting the wheel speeds so it would run donut loops in the sand. That is, until smoke started pouring from Jack. Along the way, they also learned – the hard way – that their wheels need lock washers or lock nuts.

“There was one robot that successfully made it to the target (a beacon set in the middle of the sand dunes course),” Taylor says. That device was from Trinidad State Junior College, built by a team that had been together and focused on finding solutions for four years.

While Montgomery and Ditmore are graduating in May, team members Williams, Romanetz and Cali Antolini are set to return to Western in the fall. The team will need a new programmer to work out “the vision thing,” Taylor says. But she also notes Dr. John Peterson, professor of Computer Science, has taken a keen interest in the robot’s navigation system and promises he will help students solve the issues.

For now, the aluminum box with wheels at the end of extendable legs sits on the floor of Taylor’s office, awaiting a student’s curiosity to diagnose the source of the smoke that stopped its progress.

Learn more about Western’s robotics team.

Photographs by Dr. Suzanne Taylor; story by Greg Smith, Western Marketing and Media Relations.

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Monday, April 14, 2014 - 10:00am