Robotics team gaining hands-on experience for competition

Students on the College of DuPage (CoD) Robotics Team in suburban Chicago are gaining crucial hands-on experience preparing for prestigious national robotics competitions this spring by designing, modifying, fabricating, and testing their robots.

By College of DuPage March 10, 2018

Students on the College of DuPage (CoD) Robotics Team, an offshoot of the College’s Engineering Club, are gaining crucial hands-on experience preparing for prestigious national robotics competitions this spring.

Gearing up for the 30th annual Midwest Robotics Design competition in March and the 2018 NASA Robotic Mining Competition held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in May, the team has spent the fall semester designing, modifying, fabricating, and testing to get their robots in top shape for the competitions.

For Engineering and Technology Club President Josie Suter, one of the best things about the competition is seeing all the pieces come together.

"I’m looking forward to seeing the end product of months of effort,” she said. “Seeing the piles of aluminum and electronics turn into a robot that runs is one of the most exciting and satisfying things I’ve ever witnessed. It’s hard to see the big picture when you’re machining a part the size of your thumb, but it all comes together when you see the vital function of that part in the running robot."

College of DuPage is the only two-year school invited in the last five years to compete in the Midwestern Robotics Design Competition MRDC), an annual robotics competition held at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC), where student teams from across the Midwest design and build competitive robots. Each year, a new game objective is created to test teams in terms of creative design and robot functionality.

In 2015, the COD Engineering team won Best Design at the competition. In 2017, the team entered three robots, competing against 27 teams from prestigious universities. One of their robots, Scoot, placed ninth out of 30 teams in the preliminary competition and went on to take fourth place overall in the final round. The College’s team is also one of only two community colleges invited to participate in the 2015 and 2016 NASA Robotic Mining Competitions (RMC) held at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. At NASA’s RMCT, teams create mining robots to navigate a simulated Martian terrain, excavate simulated Martian gravel and deposit the material into a collection bin.

According to Peter Gutfeldt, who worked on the mechanical elements of the team’s 2018 robots, working with the team and participating in the competitions provide wonderful opportunities for hands-on learning experiences. 

“Being a part of the robotics program here at COD and having the opportunity to take a leadership position this year has been an invaluable experience for me and an amazing supplement to my engineering education,” he said. "The design and tweaking process is something many engineering students never have the chance to experience until they graduate and are on the job. Learning it here is giving me a huge jumpstart on actual work in the industry. Additionally, as any machinist will tell you, learning the methods and limitations of machining and fabrication, as we are doing here, is something every engineer should do.”

Gutfeldt, who said he has wanted to be a mechanical engineer for as long as he can remember, plans to transfer to UIUC after completing the spring 2018 semester at College of DuPage. “When I was three, I declared that I wanted to be an inventor and haven’t changed my mind since. I have always loved examining and taking apart anything mechanical as well as designing my own inventions and concepts,” he said. “I am definitely interested in robotics fields and love doing anything having to do with complex mechanical devices and equipment.  My dream job would also definitely include some kind of hands-on work.”

Gutfeldt said the team has been working on a broad range of improvements and upgrades to their robots for this year’s competitions. The bulk of the fall semester work focused on overhauling their robot for the Nasa Robotic Mining Competition, focusing on two main areas in need of modification: the wheels and the steering mechanism/drive train. The team has developed computer drafts and completed machining parts for the modifications, and is entering the process of assembly and testing. The team also has been working on modifications to the robot’s main frame, making improvements to the auger assembly and improving the efficiency of the robot’s material-holding mechanism.

Robert Beckwith, who works on the robots’ electrical elements, said NASA competition scoring changes required heavy modifications to the machine. While the team will continue to use an auger design for mining material, many other elements of the robot will be improved upon, including expanding to a three-auger motor, changing the drivetrain, redesigning the electrical box, and using a smaller battery to save weight and match voltage to the new power distribution board.

“We have also added an Intel NUC to our electrical box,” Beckwith said. “This computer will be running Linux and will be able to process the vision from our camera. We are using a (Microsoft) Xbox Kinect V2 as our camera on our robot and we plan to program it to be able recognize a beacon, be able to drive out to the mining area, drill for material, and drive back and dump it in the scoring bin, all autonomously.”

Planning to transfer to UIUC and pursue a degree in computer science after completing the spring 2018 semester at COD, Beckwith said that the team faces a unique issue at the competitions.

“The major challenge we have is being a two-year college,” Beckwith said. “Every year we lose our most experienced members because they go onto another school and then we have to compete against them again. It is always a challenge at the beginning of the year training all the new people when the sophomores only have a year of experience.”

Beckwith, who hopes to work for a software company in the future, said he is thrilled with his experience with at COD.

“Honestly, I think doing robotics is the best part of my college experience,” Beckwith said. “I’ve gained so much actual engineering experience. When working towards a goal of a competition, it motivates me to learn as much as possible to be able to beat the other teams. From one of our outreach events, I met someone who later helped me get an internship at Morey, an electronics manufacturing and design company. I got past the interview almost one-hundred percent from my robotics experience.”

College of DuPage (CoD)

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– Edited by Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media, See more Control Engineering robotics stories.