EIT team heads to the West coast to win international robot competition
Imagine there has been a radioactive leak in a nuclear facility and the level of radioactivity needs to be determined. It’s far too dangerous to send a human being in to inspect the damage; so what do you send? A robot.
This was precisely the scenario used for the American Society of Mechanical Engineers 2013 Design Competition. Students were charged with creating a remote–controlled device. A group of Engineering and Information Technology students at UALR decided to take that challenge. The group consisted of juniors and seniors: Clint Maddox, Josh Faulkner, Henry Meyers, Stephen Fitch, Jason Braudford, and Josh Pittman.
None of the guys had any robot-building experience before the competition. In fact, they did not know each other before the competition, with the exception of two members who had taken a class together. Their one commonality was that they were all ASME members.
“I was new to ASME at the time,” said Maddox. “People who were interested showed up. We all started asking about ideas and started designs and things like that. I think we started with about 15 people and then it got down to about eight and then six of us together.”
Soon the six-man crew would begin preparing for the regional competition. It took place in April at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The course was a rectangular 5-meter by 7.5-meter surface filled with obstacles that the machine had to maneuver while attempting to complete five tasks:
- Navigate barriers
- Survey the area and read a digital pressure gauge
- Push a button on a control panel
- Pick up a radiation sensor
- Take the radiation sensor to a certain location
The group said that 18 out of the 20 registered schools showed up at the events. Among those present, only 15 robots actually functioned. “Their robots either broke or had some other issues,” Maddox said. Some of the competition included: University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, Baylor, Texas Tech, and Louisiana State.
“We knew we had a pretty good robot but once we started seeing the competition we knew we had a really good robot. And then, we just dominated really,” said Maddox.
Indeed, the team did dominate, winning the competition thanks to their practical design and unmatched speed. “I didn’t expect to win in Tulsa,” Pittman said. “I just wanted to be competitive. To go up there and win was an awesome surprise.”
With a name as fierce as the “Viper” written on the side of the team’s robot, it was sure to catch attention as it zipped through the course. The crew had only 5 minutes to complete a course simulated to resemble a nuclear power plant. They finished in 47 seconds. Second place was about 52 seconds and the next closest was around 90 seconds. Controllers Meyers and Pittman had to operate the device from behind a curtain while watching the device’s camera feed which was connected to laptop.
The Viper also boasts a large claw on its front side. The massive claw prevented them from having to make small adjustments. It was the most difficult feature to create, said Maddox.
“Other competitors would use their claws to grasp the dial, which took a lot of time,” Braudford said.
In addition to the claw, there is a scoop at the bottom of the Viper that catches nearly any object that it runs over. Since it has such little ground clearance, the object: a 2-inch tall block of wood, does not sip underneath.
“We just hit top speed and we don’t even have to stop and pick up the second dial, we just run over it,” Faulkner said.
Another interesting feature is the robot controller – an Xbox joystick hooked to what appears to be a small treasure chest with a circuit board is nested inside. A red light out on the outside signifies that the device is on. Programmer Thomas Epperson, a former UALR student, helped with wiring of the machine.
As for the Xbox joystick, the team said it was simply chosen for ergonomic purposes.
“You can get any kind of controller but, you know, most people our age and this whole generation, everybody’s comfortable, everybody knows how to hold an Xbox controller or any kind of video game.
Moving the machine is as simple as moving ones thumbs. With a forward thrust of the left thumb stick, the machine moves speedily ahead. The right thumb stick causes the controls its turning direction. Buttons A and X move the claw, Y switches the camera feed, and B shuts off the device.
When the outer shell is lifted, the inner workings of the machine are exposed. It’s frame work is made of material from a Vex motor kit, donated by a professor in the Systems Engineering department. The gift considerably reduced cost for the team. They had to add about $400 to $500 worth of additional material. “I think its right around the $1,000 mark,” Maddox said, referring to the total value of the robot.
“You can tell that when we went to Tulsa there were people who spent a lot more money than that,” Braudford said. The team recalled that one team put nearly $4,000 into a machine that did not even work.
Since winning the regional competition, the UALR team has upgraded its motors to increase the speed. The flames painted on the outer shell of the Viper also help boost speed, Faulkner said jokingly.
The new motors will allow it to go 4.2 feet per second. When the crew won the competition, the Viper was traveling 2.2 feet per second. Those extra two feet could be just what the team needs to win the international competition set to take place on Nov. 17 in San Diego, California. The team will be staying at the Manchester Grand Hyatt, a four-star hotel overlooking the water. First prize is $3,000. In addition the chapter gets $1000. They claimed a $500 prize and $1,200 in travel reimbursement, for winning in Tulsa.
When asked about their chances against competitors from all over the world, they were confident and resolute.
“We expect to win.”