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Student-Built Robot Wins Navigation Competition

Team Places Third in International Contest

UMass Lowell’s MCP III.5 robot.

06/23/2010
By Edwin L. Aguirre

One of two robots entered by UMass Lowell won third place in one of the events at the 18th annual Intelligent Ground Vehicles Competition (IGVC) held at Oakland University in Rochester Hills, Mich. The four-day event was co-sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and featured self-controlled, or “autonomous,” student-built robots.

The University’s entry; called MCP III.5; clinched the honors in the Navigation Challenge, one of the two performance events at the contest, and placed in the top three overall. In the challenge, the robots had to rely on global positioning system (GPS) technology to visit a series of nine waypoints in an open field while avoiding obstacles along its path, such as highway barrels and sawhorses. The robots are completely computer-controlled, and once under way, they cannot be guided in any way by their human developers except to be stopped in case of malfunction.

“In all, 48 robots competed in the event, the biggest turnout ever,” says computer science Assoc. Prof. Fred Martin. “The teams came primarily from the United States, but there were also contingents from Japan, France and, for the first time, India. Only 23 of the robots were sufficiently operational to qualify for competition; including both of UMass Lowell’s robots. MCP’s third-place finish put it ahead of all but two of the four dozen robots present.”

The student team that created MCP III.5 and the University’s other robot, named Stark, received a cash prize of $2,000 for its efforts.

Martin, who is the team’s faculty adviser, has brought students to the IGVC since 2004.

“This year, there was a new opportunity: to jump-start UMass Lowell’s forthcoming Robotics Minor with a completely new robot; Stark,” he says.

Martin recruited mechanical engineering Asst. Prof. David Willis and secured the support of Prof. Craig Armiento, chair of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. Two teams of students created the control software for MCP III.5 and Stark as part of the robot design graduate course taught by computer science Assoc. Prof. Holly Yanco during this year’s spring semester. Nat Tuck and Michael McGuinness concentrated on tackling the location-based Navigation Challenge while John Fertitta and Michael Therrien, assisted by Tom Kiley and Jeff Rousseau, focused on the vision-based Autonomous Challenge.

Mechanical engineering students Chad Sweeny, Gregg Merlino and Andrew Sutton used SolidWorks CAD software and CNC milling machines to design and fabricate Stark’s chassis and drive train, while computer science grad student James Dalphond acted as project manager for Stark, specifying the robot’s major subsystems and performing systems integration.

“This robot was my life for four months,” says Dalphond. “It was reassuring to see that even though we didn’t win the design competition, so many people appreciated our work.”

As they were using a brand new, untested design, Stark’s team members expected problems to come up during the robot’s first real field shake down. These glitches included a broken drive mechanism and a loose battery cable that caused Stark’s computer to reboot whenever it went over a bump. Fortunately, the team members were able to fix them in time and Stark participated successfully in all of its runs.

The top honors, however, went to MCP III.5, which was initially developed by UMass Lowell’s 2008 IGVC team.

“Participating in the contest for the third time, MCP III.5 had new electronics as well as new control programs,” says Martin. “Its mechanics and overall design had been tested over the years and, with close supervision by robot lead Mark Sherman, it performed reliably during the entire event.”

The 2010 IGVC team is grateful to the Computer Science, Mechanical Engineering and Electrical and Computer Engineering Departments and the College of Engineering for donating funds to the project; NPC Robotics for the motors; Vicor Inc. for the power electronics; C&K Components for the switches; and the University’s Submillimeter-Wave Technology Laboratory, Ideas Inc. Precision Sheet Metal Fabrication and Blackstone Valley Regional Vocational Technical High School for the machining.

“It was a great showing this year for UMass Lowell, and the students and faculty are already planning for next year,” says Martin. “Stark can still qualify for a design award and the vision challenge is yet to be conquered. With the prize money, the team now has a down payment on new parts for next year’s entries!”

For more information about the contest and to see a video of MCP’s third-place finish, visit the website for UMass Lowell’s Entries into the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition.

UMass Lowell’s Stark robot
The UMass Lowell 2010 IGVC team includes, from left, students Mike Therrien, Tom Kiley, Jeff Rousseau, Mark Sherman, John Fertitta, Mike McGuinness, Chris Deveau, Nat Tuck, Chad Sweeny, Peter Galvin, Jim Dalphond and visiting researcher Henning Brandt. Faculty adviser Fred Martin took the picture.