Students Build Robot to Compete at Sand Dunes

Students work together to build parts for an autonomous robot.
As part of Western's involvement in the Colorado Space Grant Consortium – a NASA-affiliated program – a group of students meets Friday afternoons in Hurst Hall to prepare a Mars-Rover-like, autonomous robot.

The resulting device will compete with robots from other schools April 5 at Great Sand Dunes National Park, about two hours drive from Western. The device must navigate on its own once it's released on the sandy course, where it must avoid obstacles to seek a beacon transmitting at a specific frequency. It must weigh less than 1.5 kilograms, have parts that cost less than a total of $500 and be "no bigger than the average cat," according to Dr. Suzanne Taylor, faculty advisor for the project and Western assistant professor of physics. And while the device must navigate, it can't take advantage of GPS, because "there's no GPS on Mars."

Graham Montgomery between his fingers the tiny camera that will guide the team's robot.

On a recent Friday afternoon, Graham Montgomery, a senior in Computer Science, unwrapped several fully stocked circuit boards and plugged them into his netbook computer, which displayed pages of computer code. One board is a tiny, incredibly affordable computer central processing unit, called a Raspberry Pi, designed for specialty and hobby projects and capable of running the Linux operating system. The other is a full-motion, high-definition camera, hardly bigger than Montgomery's thumbnail. Marc Ditmore, a senior in Mathematics, worked with Montgomery to adjust the code, which aims to allow the finished robot to see and understand – at least to a point – its environment, so it can avoid obstacles on the way to its goal: the beacon, which will be placed on the far side of those obstacles, alerting the competing robots with its radio signal.

"What I'm really excited about is using actual vision, rather than the infrared sensors most others use," Montgomery said as he tested the camera's connection with the Pi board.

A student computes on paper the needs for the propulsion of an autonomous robot.

Another pair of students – Koleman Williams, a senior in Psychology and Mathematics with a physics minor, and Ted Romanetz, in his third year as a Business Administration and Environment & Sustainability major with a biology minor – considered the mechanics of their rover. They measured the boards, considered the motor assembly and battery system yet to come, compared them to a set of 4- or 5-inch wheels that carry the assembly and began sketching – both designs and equations.

Taylor looked on with interest, approval and occasional bemusement as the four young men paired off to work on their respective aspects of the project. She explained this is the second year Western has competed at the dunes, and while last year's team worked hard, their rover did not. Last-minute work precluded testing the device before the team pitched camp at the dunes beside groups from other Colorado schools.

"Basically," Taylor explained, "there wasn't enough power to drive the motors."

That won't happen again. On order, are a new battery and motor controller that will provide plenty of power. The team's biggest worries concern the code and the sand, both of which have tripped up others' entries in previous competitions.

"There was one high school team whose sensors didn't work," Taylor said, recalling last year's competition, noting some teams' success and others' failures. "They just put it on max power and pointed it down the middle of the course. I don't think many of the teams could go all the way through the course to the beacon."

In addition to the robotics challenge, Taylor is working with students Shannon Shaw and Tepora Su'a on another Space Grant project. The two young women are preparing cultures of harmless e-coli bacteria and vessel to safely contain the microbes as they ascend on a weather balloon to about 100,000 feet. Along with eight other experiments – from other schools – their package will then parachute back to Earth, where they hope to find the experiment intact, showing how the microbes react to radiation, gravity and temperature changes. Shaw and Su'a are now testing their payload containing two Petri dishes by bouncing it down stairs, swinging it at the end of a string over their heads and subjecting it to other physical extremes, to ensure it can survive the ride. The balloon launch is set for early in the morning April 12 in Windsor, on the eastern Colorado plains.

Both groups must share Powerpoint presentations with other teams as they prepare for the competitions. After the April gatherings, they must analyze their results and share them with other students and faculty at one of Western's weekly Math and Science seminars. Funding for the projects includes $12,250 from the Space Grant Consortium. Each student receives a small stipend, travel expenses and funding for needed parts and materials, with any balance helping to fund Western's science efforts.

"But most of the students are having so much fun learning that they don't care what they're getting paid," Taylor said.

— By Greg Smith, Western Marketing and Media Relations

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 - 10:00am