Las Cruces – A team of electrical and computer engineering students from NMSU won first place at the First Annual Mercury Remote Robot Challenge, held at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. Not only did they design and build their robot, they also maneuvered it remotely through an obstacle course that was in another building.
Seniors Michael Chenoweth, Timothy Penn, Larry Powell and Salvador Sanchez comprised the NMSU team. They competed against three OSU teams (two undergraduate and one graduate team) as well as against two undergraduate teams from Benemerita Universidad Autonoma de Puebla, Puebla, Mexico.
NMSU boasted the only penalty-free run, as well as the fastest overall course completion time of 3 minutes 7 seconds, approximately 50 seconds faster than the next-fastest team.
The robot was the senior capstone design project that is a graduation requirement for all electrical engineering students. The group began working on the robot during the fall 2009 semester, collectively logging approximately 800 hours toward completion of the project. They finished early, in February, giving them ample time to practice driving. It also allowed them to make improvements, such as handcrafting Plexiglas fenders to prevent wires from rubbing on the wheels.
"What really set their robot off from the others was that they programmed it to take commands from a game controller, rather than a keyboard," said Laura Boucheron, electrical engineering research assistant professor and adviser to the capstone group.
The robot is equipped with range finders that can detect its distance from objects, as well as a video camera that provides visual information. Chenoweth, the robot "driver," viewed this information on his computer screen to guide the robot through the maze in the competition, while other members of the team watched the race in person.
None of the team members had ever built a robot before. They scavenged many of the parts for the robot and bought other items off the shelf. The only special-order part was a winch servo used to move the camera. They had duplicate parts for all of the pieces, which was good planning as the winch servo needed to be replaced a week before the competition.
Penn was responsible for the coding and networking. Powell was responsible for the power, drive train and chassis. Sanchez completed the software programming and Chenoweth worked on the camera and controller.
"The most challenging part was networking the interface with motors," said Penn, who had no previous networking experience. "I was kind of afraid that I wouldn't be able to do it, but our big break was when we were able to use the router as a wireless card. The sensors and the controller connect to the router and the router connects to the Internet. The others used computers embedded in their system."
Although aesthetics were not considered in the competition, the NMSU team took great pride in making their robot look good, along with functioning well.
"It was a quarter-inch sheet of plate aluminum before we started," said Powell. "I hand-cut every piece and drilled and tapped every screw. I even made custom axles."
All four of the students received an A+ on their capstone design course. Additionally, all of them are set with plans for the future. Following graduation, Penn will pursue a master's degree at the Air Force Institute of Technology at Wright Patterson Air Force Base; Chenoweth will go to work for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center in San Diego; and Powell will work for General Dynamics in Scottsdale, Ariz. Sanchez, who will graduate in December, is hoping to pursue his master's degree at UCLA.