When you think college campus, you might think classes, parties, and dorms, but for some students at the University of Illinois at Chicago the college experience is all about the robots. Well, maybe not ALL about the robots, but there is a serious devotion to robotics among the members of the Chicago Engineering Design Team.
The team, which started in 2001, began as a way to take lessons being learned in the classroom and apply them to real life situations. From there it evolved to include three robotics competitions with five robots, about 50 to 60 members, and a focus on STEM outreach.
"The education of your peers, the community, and the promotion of STEM are the main missions, but also the desire to make advancements in competitive robotics and really to build a family atmosphere within the group so people will stay around for year after year and want to continue helping," says Jasen Massey, a master's student, and the current president of the group.
Even though the focus of the group is obviously engineering, the group puts strong emphasis on building a personal and professional network of people who can help future students. Many join as freshman and continue on to advise the group as alumni, says Massey. They go out into the workplace, obtain jobs, and then bring the industry knowledge back to the group.
The Engineering Design Team is open to all students of any major who has an interest or passion for learning and robotics. Massey says most of the members are science or engineering majors, but they occasionally have students with more traditional liberal arts majors join. He feels members with less traditional backgrounds have a lot to offer the group because they come at problems from such a different perspective.
One thing he is very passionate about is making sure the group is open to male and female students. Though he admits the group has a male majority, there is a real effort to open it up to women who are interested in robotics.
"There is no gender bias in robotics. If you can build it and you’re willing to learn to do it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman," he says.
The group is now up to three competitions per year, including the Jerry Sanders Design Competition, NASA Robotic Mining Competition, and the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition.
The Jerry Sanders Design Competition, one of the oldest continuing competitions, was the first one the group ever designed a robot for, and it's next up on the 2015 calendar. This year, the group is bringing three robots that a few challenging objectives, including one that includes picking up a ball and throwing it at rotating bin about 3.5 feet away. The robots also have to navigate around "pinch point" or obstacles in the course.
Just for reference, here's a course rendering for the 2015 competition. Each of the tiles represents a 4 foot by 4 foot area. It's intense.
A more recent, but equally important, addition to the group's mission is increasing amounts of STEM outreach. Once a month, members will visit schools, groups, and community centers in an effort to show kids that engineering isn't all scary math and hard lessons. They speak to kids as old as high school seniors and as young as two, but the talks differ a little.
"With the younger kids we get them involved and have them drive the robot and play with it and just get excited," says Massey. "We’ll have them build their own wind up tractor where they have to assemble all of it and some of these other little activities to get them involved in hands on stuff."
Apparently, two year olds aren't as interested in the software aspects of robotics.
For the older kids, the EDT will talk about projects the students are working on or projects they'd be interested in. They also give them tours of all the engineering labs and take the opportunity to show what it really means to be an engineer. But don't worry, they get to drive the robots, too.
But we know why you're here, let's get down to the dirty details. Here's what Massey had to say about three of the group's robots:
IGVC-Scipio: Scipio is a fully autonomous robot that navigates an obstacle riddled course utilizing feedback from wheel encoders, high precision GPS and compass, inertial measurement unit, monoscopic camera system, and laser range finder. In the 2013 competition, we placed 8th overall out of 50 teams and 3rd in Design. In 2014, we placed 7th overall and 2nd in Design.
JSDC-Richard: Richard is a remotely-controlled robot that utilizes a skid-steer set-up to traverse the course. The manipulating arm has three degrees of freedom, allowing an extended reach beyond that of the competitors. Richard placed 1st in the 2014 JSDC, as well as taking home the award for "Most Points in a Single Round." The video is from the 2014 competition.
RMC-Hush Puppy: Hush Puppy is controlled remotely over Wi-Fi using specific protocols designed by EDT engineers. The purpose of the competition is the simulate Martian excavation. In the 2014 competition, Hush Puppy placed 17th out of 34 teams while being the only rookie team (first year) to successfully complete the objective.