Students Come to the Rescue in Robotics Challenge

Thursday, December 16, 2021

Electrical and computer engineering students completed their first academic quarter by working in teams to design autonomous- and remote-controlled robots that simulated the rescue of trapped cave explorers.

Robots that simulated the rescue of trapped cave explorers also helped first-year electrical and computer engineering students uncover programming, communications, and technical skills that will be useful throughout their college and professional careers.

They also made new friends along the way. 

Student teams culminated this fall’s introductory Engineering Practice course by “competing” in the Spelunker Rescue Spectacular. The challenge had robots under autonomous- and remote-control moving objects (large Lego bricks) to pick up trapped people (rubber ducks) and carry them through a cave to a recovery area for medical care. 

That assigned task had to be completed within four minutes. Along the way the robots collected points based upon the speed and accuracy in “saving” the missing spelunkers and completing the task under autonomous (highest credit) or remote control. 

Assistant Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Zak Estrada, PhD, pointed out that nearly half of the students in the course’s four classroom sections had never written computer programs to control a robot. Others had little knowledge of how infrared sensors could keep the robot following a pathway through the dark cave and complete other aspects of the challenge.

Jacob Teaney, a computer engineering major, said, “We never had anything like this in high school and if we did it was not as part of a team. This made learning really fun.”

Nearby, teammate Ryan Seidel operated the controller that led Team ManPac’s robot to be one of the fastest and most reliable of the competition.

“We worked together well as a team and had a good game plan,” said the electrical engineering student. “(The challenge) was really hands-on and made us learn by doing. I liked that.”

Other team members were electrical engineering major Andrew Shaw and computer engineering student Lucas Tyson.

Baktoid Robotics was another strong team, led by electrical engineering majors Robbie Danforth and Murari Srinivasan along with computer engineering students Trent Rider and Dalton Bumb. 

“There was no ‘Eureka’ moment when everything came together. We were just committed to collecting as many points as quick as possible, without incurring any penalties,” said Danforth, who operated the robot’s controller. At one point the robot collected and delivered all three spelunkers with 42 seconds to spare.

Rider added, “We didn’t know everything at the beginning or in the middle of the class, but everything came together at the end. We were very satisfied with how things turned out.”

Also pleased was computer engineering major Jada Hunter-Hays whose Super Hot Fire team overcame several mishaps to help a couple of wayward cave explorers find their way home.

“We struggled together,” she said. “We got to know each other and made invaluable friendships because we accomplished something together. We took different aspects from our classes and put them into practice in a meaningful and fun-filled task.” 

The Engineering Principles course introduces students to many of the skills that will eventually create successful electrical and computer engineers, according to department head Mario Simoni, PhD, one of four professors teaching the course this fall. “This is a perfect backdrop to both areas,” he said.

Other class sections were taught by Carlotta Berry, PhD, the Lawrence J. Giacoletto Endowed Chair in Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Chris Miller, PhD, associate professor within the department.

Estrada added that the robotics challenge was a practical class exercise. There were no winners or losers in the competition as the performance of each team’s robot didn’t impact any student’s grade in the course.

“It was enjoyable seeing our students coming together and having fun applying what they have learned in class,” he said.

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