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By Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS
February 28, 2014

  • With Engineering Open House just around the corner, six student robotics teams are gearing up for the AMD Jerry Sanders Design Competition.
  • The competition provides an opportunity for students to practice interdisciplinary collaboration on a real-world project.
  • It's scheduled for 9 a.m. until 4 p.m., Friday, March 14, and from 9 a.m. until 3 p.m., Saturday, March 15, in the Kenney Gym Annex.
“Here’s the top of the robot and then the claw,” said Mark Mahowald, an electrical-engineering junior and captain of the IEEE robotics team. He was at a blackboard in Everitt Lab one recent evening, sketching a robot amidst a scribble of formulas from a class earlier in the day. “If we have enough time, we can add some sort of a rotation as well,” he said, pointing, on the chalkboard illustration, to a joint in the angular arm of the robot.
 
With Engineering Open House less than two weeks away, students all across the engineering campus are working caffeine-fueled overtime. Bolts are being tightened, flyers printed, activities for elementary-school students coordinated, even recipes are being engineered (there’s rumor of 3-D printed chocolates).
Mark Mahowald and Alexander Hsu (IEEE).
Mark Mahowald and Alexander Hsu (IEEE).
Mahowald is the captain of the IEEE robotics team, one of six groups on campus that are preparing robots for the crowd-pleasing robotics event, the AMD Jerry Sanders Design Competition, which takes place in the Kenney Gym Annex.
 
On a table in front of him, the robot was sitting with its top hatch folded back. Alexander Hsu, another member of the IEEE robotics team, was fine-tuning parts inside the Plexiglas body. An organized ganglion of red and blue wires connected the servomotors to the brains — the microcontrollers that coordinate the actions, the radio-frequency receivers that communicate with the hand-held controller.
 
The top-mounted arm and claw in the illustration, which other team members were fabricating, will be used to complete the primary task in the Jerry Sanders competition. At any given point during the event, there are up to four robots on the course, each collecting disc cones — those squat cones used to mark end zones for pick-up soccer — and vying to deposit them on pins throughout the course. To access the cones, the robots have to pull latches and lift doors, and to reach the upper levels of the course, they have to perform a Rube-Goldbergian task involving a soccer ball, a pedestal, and a motorized ramp.
 
“You’re not going to have time to do everything,” explained Matt Birkel, the president of the student robotics organization, iRobotics, on a recent evening in the club’s workspace, where he was meeting with the iRobotics team captains. “So picking and choosing what you want to do to maximize your points is a good strategy that we all follow. Some of us are playing similar strategies, but we’re not all playing the same strategy.”
 
Some designs will be better at opening doors, others at reaching cones suspended overhead. Last year marked the first aerial robot — a quadcopter — to compete in the event. And this year, with 27 teams registered from six colleges, two will bring aerial robots and one will bring an autonomous design. (There are triple and quintuple multipliers, respectively, for points scored with those approaches.)
 
While the three iRobotics teams are distinct and create independent designs during the fall semester, when it comes time to build their robots, they share the same packed workspace in the back of the Engineering Student Project Lab and invite the Engineering Freshman Committee team to join them as well.
From L-R: Matt Birkel, Ian Weivoda, Ben Kuo, and Ahmed Sulaiman (iRobotics and EFC).
From L-R: Matt Birkel, Ian Weivoda, Ben Kuo, and Ahmed Sulaiman (iRobotics and EFC).
The space is small and chockablock. Robot chassis are rolled under the workbenches. Tools and parts are arrayed across every available surface.
 
“Across the way, there’s a working machine shop,” said Birkel, a computer-engineering student, who also serves as the captain of the club’s senior team, The Midterminators. “We have two mills, two lathes, a vertical band saw, and a CNC mill. So we use those ... and these pieces were cut on the water jet in [the Mechanical Engineering Laboratory].” He pointed to a stack of gleaming metal components stacked on the workbench.
 
To build and design a robot, the teams need expertise from across the college. “We are CompEs, and we don’t really learn how to weld or cut metal in class,” said Ahmed Sulaiman, the captain of the iRobotics junior team, Brobots, referring to himself and Birkel. It’s a chance for programmers and mechanical engineers, alike, to gain hands-on-experience working with new equipment and a chance to practice interdisciplinary collaborations. 
 
“When teams are in here working at the same time, people ask others for advice,” Birkel said. “So information gets passed down from experienced to lesser experienced.”
 
Ian Weivoda, a mechanical engineering student and the captain of the Engineering Freshman Committee’s robotics team, recounted how, just days before, they were in the workshop and Birkel suggested that he look at how the omnidirectional Mecanum wheels were attached on the freshman team’s robot. They were installed backwards.
 
“What? Why’d you tell him?” joked Ben Kuo, an electrical-engineering student and the captain of the sophomore team, EVO. 
 
If the team had waited to address the problem, other parts would have been installed in the chassis, and the correction would have been much more involved. “They would have been too deep in their frame,” Birkel responded. “I had pity.”
 
While each of the Illinois teams — even within iRobotics — are competitively hoping for gold, there’s still an amicable dynamic that characterizes their interactions. They swap ideas and offer advice, even if the teams don’t reveal the specifics of their designs before the competition.  
 
“We want our school to win,” Kuo said. 
 
“It’s time to start a winning streak of (Illinois) teams,” Birkel agreed.
 
The mechanical engineering honor society, Pi Tau Sigma, is also working on a design for the competition, revamping the robot they used last year,
Christopher Johnson (PTS).
Christopher Johnson (PTS).
which ranked them first among the Illinois teams.
 
“We figured it would probably be good to stick with it,” said Christopher Johnson, a junior mechanical engineering student and captain of the team. “We had a solid chassis.” This year, they have added an additional arm to their design, and expanded the operating system to incorporate a second hand-held controller. Now one team member can navigate the robot while another operates the arms. “It sounds simple, but if you can divide it at all, it just makes it that much easier,” Johnson said. 
 
In the end, Engineering Open House is an opportunity for visitors, of course, to see a sample of what’s happening in labs and workshops across the engineering campus, but it’s also an opportunity for the students who will be presenting projects — robots or otherwise — to implement designs with real-world expectations and limitations.
 
“We get sponsors. We buy whatever we want in terms of electronics, and we just test them out,” Sulaiman said. “You don’t really get that freedom and flexibility in classes. And you can actually apply what you’re learning at a better level ... like, ‘Wow, that’s a robot. That’s a robot running out there and actually executing your code.’”
 
The students experience the whole engineering process, from conceiving the initial design, to finding parts, to building the robot. And for those who participate each year, there’s a chance, then, to refine and improve subsequent designs.  
 
“You’re not sitting in a lab where the fixtures are already built and set up for you and somebody already knows that it works,” Birkel said. “Now you’re working on something, you don’t know if it’s going to work; you’re going to try to make it work. It’s something brand new. ... That’s really the heart of engineering.”
 

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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