Robotics Team Earns Highest Placing to Date

LEXINGTON, Va., April 14, 2021—“If you can use your people, you can solve any problem that gets thrown your way for sure.”

That’s what Eric Munro ’21, project manager, had to say about his team’s success in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Region III Hardware Competition, held as part of IEEE Southeast Con 2021. The annual student robotics competition has been ongoing for several decades, and VMI has sent a team each year since 2002. This year’s event, scheduled to be in Atlanta, Georgia, was moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the challenges of the pandemic, plus a massive hardware failure the night before the competition, a team of 21 cadets, most majoring in electrical and computer engineering (ECE), earned VMI’s highest placing in the competition in almost two decades of participation, taking first place in hardware design and hardware design review, plus winning the T-shirt competition. 

The VMI team finished second among nine teams in the overall competition, just behind Clemson University, a school with just over 20,000 undergraduates. “We usually finish in the top one third, but only once before have we finished in the top three, and this is the first time we’ve finished second,” said Col. James “Jim” Squire, professor of electrical and computer engineering and coach of many IEEE teams. 

Cadets working on entry for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Region III Hardware CompetitionCadets, including Eric Munro ’21, project manager, working on their entry for the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Region III Hardware Competition. - VMI photos by Kelly Nye

Squire added that while VMI requires all ECE majors in their 1st Class year to participate as part of their capstone senior project, teams from other schools are self-selected—thus upping the challenge.

“I couldn’t be more proud of these [cadets],” said Col. Thomas “Tom” McCormick, assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, who is now in his fourth year of coaching the IEEE team. “I’m extremely proud of what they’ve done. They designed this thing and built this thing all on their own and did it in such a professional manner. They really made my job very, very easy. Certainly all of the credit goes to them.”

With Munro leading the way, the cadets began their work in the spring of 2020, with the ECE majors supported by two mechanical engineering majors and one computer and information sciences major.

Even as the pandemic kept them away from one another, they were busy reading the rules, which are released one year in advance of the competition, and learning from the Class of 2020. Members of that class encountered the heartbreak of having the IEEE competition canceled as they were en route to it last spring, yet they reached out to the next class, offering insights as to what worked and what didn’t.

“It gave us a base to build on,” said Garner Fleming ’21, who led the budget and administration team. Now, members of this year’s team are preparing to return the favor before they graduate, in the form of a soon-to-be held mentorship meeting with ECE majors in the Class of 2022.

“We’d like to make it fun but educational, answer any questions they may have, and give them some good advice,” said Munro. “[The Class of 2020] did their best to set us up for success and now we pay it forward.”

This year’s competition was based on the classic arcade game Pac-Man. Just as in the classic game, the robot had to navigate a maze with multiple right-angle corners, avoid ghosts, and also had to pick up power pellets via an extendable arm. 

“Just like in the game Pac-Man, if your robot hits a ghost, they’re penalized,” explained Brahn Kush ’21, who designed the winning T-shirt and also worked on the budget and administration team. Kush expressed relief that the rules were changed midway through so the ghosts would not be moving, as they do in the classic game. “That made it a little bit easier,” he said.

Scoring was based on how many power pellets the robot could retrieve and bring back to the home base, with points deducted for each ghost encounter.

One of the major challenges was the small size of the robot, which this year had to fit within a 7 x 7 x 7 inch cube. “It’s not the biggest robot, but it had to be able to do a lot,” Munro commented.

The cadets were in the midst of working on their robot last fall when their ability to work together was suddenly challenged: cadets were sent home before Thanksgiving, with a return to post scheduled for mid-January. Just stopping for two months was out of the question, so they had to improvise.

Luckily, Jared Anter ’21, head of the hardware team, could find a way around the problem. During the summer and winter breaks from VMI, Anter had been working for New London Technology in Lynchburg, a business that specializes in two-way radios, and he knew that Mark Glahn, owner of that firm, had supported several robotics teams in the past.

“I asked him if it would be all right if our capstone just moved all of our equipment down to his shop, and continue to work on the weekends, and he said ‘yes,’” Anter related. “We would meet on weekends to work on the robot, with an average of about five cadets working. One weekend we had over half of the major show up.”

The two months between cadets’ return to post and the competition flew by, and by Friday, March 12, all systems seemed to be approaching “go.” That night, they decided to do some last-minute navigational tweaks.

“We did a routine power cycle—turned on the robot and uploaded a new version of the program to it—and turned off the robot—and we turned it back on to let it do its thing,” said Munro. “But it didn’t do its thing. It just sat there.”

To his horror, Munro discovered upon investigation that two thirds of the robot’s code was missing. At that point, Munro admitted he went into shock, while Kevin Yang ’21, assistant project manager, began to see what he could do to restore the missing code. Soon, the robot’s handlers had called in Willem Sciandra ’21, their computer science consultant. 

Arriving around midnight, Sciandra gave an 80 to 90 percent chance of code recovery—and within an hour, he’d discovered a backup copy of the operating system code.

“This is why I’m going to be a proponent of interdisciplinary teams my entire career,” said Munro. “If [Sciandra] wasn’t there, I don’t know what would have happened.”

Nearly all of the cadets expressed gratitude for the support of their teammates and the need to integrate diverse skill sets on a project such as this.

“I think the main thing capstone teaches is being able to work within a small subteam that’s part of a larger team,” said Bennett Smith ’21, a member of the software team. “You have to work and coordinate with other teams so your piece of the puzzle fits in with theirs.”

Experiences such as the capstone, Fleming noted, prepare cadets well for the workforce, in which engineers are part of an interconnected web.

“You may be an electrical engineer, but you’re going to depend on a mechanical engineer, people in the budget department, and people in all departments to get what you need done,” he stated.

Mary Price
Communications & Marketing


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