Dawn Cochran
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Virginia Military Institute
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Tick Rover a True Collaborative Effort

 Tick Rover jpgThis summer’s successful test of the “tick rover” robot was a significant milestone in a nine-year collaboration involving professors from three schools representing four disciplines.

The project started back in 2004 when three ideas came together with three people. Col. Dave Livingston, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, had just returned from a robotics contest with a toy tank chassis he had purchased for Col. Jim Squire, a colleague in the department. Thinking of his own child’s safety, Squire wanted to use the chassis to design a robot to kill ticks. Livingston suggested they talk to Dr. Dan Sonenshine of Old Dominion University’s biological sciences department, and two things happened.

First, the project went from a fun idea too expensive to take seriously to an affordable, practical device inspired by that toy tank chassis. Second, the project became both interdisciplinary and highly collaborative. It became a development project with a strong undergraduate research dimension.

Early brainstorming focused on vision systems to find ticks and something to zap them or squish them with – it focused, as engineers will, on the machine. Sonenshine suggested they take into account the organism they were trying to outsmart, through biomimicry.

“That’s how we got the idea of not chasing the ticks,” said Livingston, “but of having the ticks chase us.” The device is essentially an autonomous vehicle that drags a denim cloth treated with permethrin insecticide. The system exudes carbon dioxide, which for ticks is a chemoattractant. Sonenshine pointed out that ticks are programmed to go after any chemoattractant that’s moving.

“Instead of having to have a million-dollar thing, all you need is this thing to drag a cloth,” said Col. Jay Sullivan, VMI professor of mechanical engineering, who joined the project as it moved from brainstorming to design. “That,” added Sullivan, “takes the technology from something that only NSF [National Science Foundation] could fund to something I can sell to someone for their backyard.”

In the years since 2004, two more professors have joined the team: Elizabeth Baker, who was a professor in VMI’s economics and business department at the time but is now a specialist in entrepreneurship at Wake Forest University, and Holly Gaff, a math modeling specialist in ODU’s biological science department.

Developing an invention like the tick rover is a long-term project requiring work after teaching responsibilities have been met, which means after hours. Interdisciplinary approaches allow professors to make the best possible use of their very valuable investment of time.

“If you look at the robot, nothing on it was extremely difficult, but everything took a lot of time,” said Sullivan, who designed the robot’s gas distribution system. “The nice thing with these collaborations is you’re going to hit some low-lying fruit. … Having that extra expertise, ... you get that elegant solution. You get something you didn’t expect.”

The biologists from ODU added a whole different kind of thinking. “We do more research and development work, like they do in industry, than basic research,” said Livingston. Not so, Gaff and her team of biological science students. To complete the independent testing, they created with an experimental design with controls.

“They were testing the hypothesis; they culled out as many variables as they could. They’re biologists, and this is what they do,” said Sullivan, noting that from the engineering perspective the money to fund the control, which of course was never expected to produce any results, was a waste.

Gaff, he said, told him flat out she didn’t think it would work. And when the first results came in with a kill rate between 75 and 90 percent, Gaff reviewed her experimental protocol, assuming there was an error. She found nothing wrong, however, and the next test came in at 100 percent.

Baker, said Livingston, had confidence in the project from the beginning. The development work, getting the robot to do what you expect it to do, is the fun part for the engineers, said Livingston, who designed the navigation system. But that doesn’t get an invention to market. Baker and her students have added an essential element.

“We all like to build stuff,” said Sullivan of the engineers. “You get to the point where [you say], ‘OK, I built it; it works. Now what do we do?’ The patents, the paperwork, the calls – that’s the stuff that’s no fun. She [Baker] has been excellent at finding the right people to call … to get the additional resources for us to do further and further development that wouldn’t have happened otherwise.”

“We’re in the product engineering stage now,” said Livingston. “You take some of the problems that they had with the last set of tests and fix those problems.”

And that’s where students, especially cadets, come back into the equation. In the years since 2004, 12 cadets in three departments, graduate students from both ODU and Wake Forest, one home-schooler, and an undergraduate from Washington and Lee University have worked on – and learned from – the project.

Lab work is extremely important for the cadet learning experience, said Squire. “Students have different abilities. Some students show tremendous ability in a lab, even if they don’t perform as well in testing situations.”

For the tick rover, cadets have worked on navigation programming, solid modeling, prototyping, fabrication, testing, design, and 3-D modeling.

In the lab, students are solving real problems, though Squire said he sometimes must correct their designs.

“I guide them through the project,” he said. “By designing the 250 parts [of the tick rover bay station], they’ll get it right with maybe four errors, but they get all the learning. They get all the experience from it but without the frustration.”

–Sherri Tombarge

-VMI-