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Suchko brings robotic expertise to campus

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By Charlie Johnson, ECE Illinois
November 10, 2008

  • Freshman Alex Suchko competed in a robot building and driving competition while in high school in Indiana.
  • Suchko earned "World Semi-Finalist" honors his senior year, placing him in the top 0.04% of competitors world wide.
  • Suchko was involved in the design, construction, and driving of his team's robot.

ECE freshman Alex Suchko participated in the FIRST Robotics competition during his senior year in high school, where he won the Rockwell Automation Innovation in Control Award. He plans to continue working on robotics projects while at Illinois.
ECE freshman Alex Suchko participated in the FIRST Robotics competition during his senior year in high school, where he won the Rockwell Automation Innovation in Control Award. He plans to continue working on robotics projects while at Illinois.

“If you want a robot, just talk to me,” said Alex Suchko.

And Suchko, a freshman in electrical engineering, is not joking around. Prior to entering the University, the 18-year-old from Cathedral High School in Indianapolis competed in a robot building and driving competition called FIRST Robotics. FIRST is an acronym for “For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology.” The competition, which is made possible through corporate sponsorships and private donations, brings teams of young inventors and their robots together to compete in events that test a team’s ability to conceive, fabricate, and program their robot to complete specific tasks while navigating a series of obstacles. Worldwide, 2,000 teams competed, involving over 100,000 students worldwide. The international championship became so large that last year it was held on the playing field of the Georgia Dome.

Competition begins when teams are given a series of standardized parts, including motors, speed controllers, and batteries, that must be incorporated into the robot’s design. “There are certain safety components that you must use,” said Suchko, “but other than that, you do whatever you want. You start from a blank slate. The teams then conceive, design, program, and construct the robot they think will best complete the challenge.

The challenge itself changes from year to year. In the most recent competition during Suchko’s senior year, teams raced their robots around an oval track about the size of a basketball court. Suspended about six feet above the track, and similar to a highway overpass, was a metal rack holding 40-inch diameter balls. Teams were awarded points for completing laps around the track, as well as for knocking balls off of the suspended rack, and then either throwing those balls over the rack or bouncing them underneath it.

Suchko’s specialty was programming. The international championship competition began with a 15-second period during which the robot must move based solely on programming—no human interaction. For his software design for this portion, Suchko received the Rockwell Automation Innovation in Control Award. Being able to complete tasks such as knocking the balls off the rack or running laps around the track during the automation period scored Suchko’s team big points, and the team received “World Semi-Finalist” honors, placing them in the top 0.04% of teams worldwide.

Part of the FIRST Robotics competition involved manipulating 40-inch diameter balls.
Part of the FIRST Robotics competition involved manipulating 40-inch diameter balls.

However, despite winning the programming award, that was not Suchko’s favorite part of the competition. “I have to be honest, I had the opportunity to drive the robot this year, and that was my absolute favorite,” he said.

Suchko chose to attend Illinois for a variety of reasons. “A lot of people in my neighborhood went to Illinois,” he said. “There’s lots more opportunities for research. And the departments are a lot better coordinated here, and it’s easier to get funding for projects here.”

Even though there is no FIRST Robotics team at the University, Suchko plans to continue robotics projects through IEEE and the Promoting Undergraduate Research in ECE (PURE) program, which allows undergraduates to complete individual research projects with the help of a graduate student mentor.

And Suchko remains an enthusiastic advocate for robotics. “Don’t be afraid of it,” is his advice to any hesitant participant. “No matter what discipline you’re in, there is definitely something in robotics you can get involved with.”

Editor's note: media inquiries should be directed to Brad Petersen, Director of Communications, at bradp@illinois.edu or (217) 244-6376.

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