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Navigation the Biggest Challenge in Robot Sorter Project

Robot Sorter jpgA group of eight electrical engineering majors is gearing up for a robotics competition with a machine so skilled it seems to have sprung from the realm of science fiction.

The cadets, all in their 1st Class year, are enrolled in Col. Dan Barr ’74’s systems validation course, which serves as the capstone course for electrical engineering majors.

The group has designed and built, and is now fine-tuning, a cat-sized robot that can sort blocks by color and size while operating on a flat black surface slightly larger than a pool table. The work of the autonomous logistics robot is meant to simulate activity at a port, where cargo is sorted and then loaded for shipment by rail, sea, or air.

The group, which goes by the team name “Blockwork Orange,” will compete against 50 to 60 teams from other colleges and universities at the I-EEE SoutheastCon Hardware Competition, to be held April 5-7 in Jacksonville, Fla. Barr has seen VMI teams consistently place in the top quarter at this competition ever since he took over teaching the class in 2008.

The old saying that Rome wasn’t built in a day might apply to robots as well.

Work on the capstone course’s requirements actually begins during the second semester of the cadets’ 2nd Class year. In that semester, the future engineers enroll in Systems Design No. 1, which involves the study of concepts and functions. It’s a class that involves more thinking than doing.

“They start thinking about it, not touching it,” said Barr. “They might order some parts over the summer.”

In the first semester of their 1st Class year, the cadets enroll in Systems Design No. 2, which involves building the robot and the tabletop area in which it will operate, plus writing software that will be used to control the robot. The class in which the cadets are now enrolled, Systems Validation, involves testing and fine-tuning their creation, with the goal of a successful run at the April competition foremost in everyone’s mind.

And while the capstone course is heavy on technical skills, the cadets have found that they learn just as much about teamwork as they do about debugging hardware and software.

“The biggest thing I learned from this was dividing and conquering,” said Cadet Carl Bird, who serves as technical lead on the project. “We have such a great group of gifted people. Properly positioning those people so they can excel and use those skills was definitely the biggest thing.”

It’s just this lesson that the capstone course and the two preceding it are designed to teach, said Barr. “[This sequence of courses] prepares the cadets for engineering careers where teamwork on projects having complex requirements is key,” he said.

That teamwork is still very much ongoing as the cadets work to fine-tune their creation.

So far, members of Blockwork Orange have found that while it’s relatively simple to get a robot to sort blocks by color – a feat that’s accomplished by the machine’s four LED color sensors, which pick up light frequencies – getting it to move in precisely the right direction at the right moment is much more challenging.

“The hardest part has been navigation, by far,” said Bird. “It’s a level playing field, and there’s nothing physical for the robot to base itself off of. When you’re picking up something small like [a block], distance matters a lot.”

Cadet Stuart Hughes, who serves as project manager, agreed that getting the navigation working smoothly is a must, because in the actual competition, entrants aren’t allowed to touch their creations during each robot’s five-minute run. To refine the robot’s ability to find the blocks, the cadets are planning to add a gyroscope.

Despite the hiccups remaining, though, Hughes is excited about the upcoming competition. “There’s some pretty strong schools in the mix, so it’ll be pretty cool to see how we match up,” he noted.

– Mary Price