Five robotics teams will race their robots through a maze in the Commons area in Engineering Building 1 at 10 a.m. Friday, April 5 to determine which two teams will compete in the 2002 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Region 5 Robotics Competition on April 20 at the NASA Hilton.
This is the first year that the University of Houston has held a run-off. IEEE will only accept two teams from each school, but this never presented a problem before because only one team from UH entered the previous two competitions.
In fall 1999, a group of electrical engineering students decided they wanted to partake in the spring competition and approached electrical engineering professor John Glover for advice. Glover became their advisor but did not instruct them on how to build the robots, leaving the students to figure that out for themselves. The students constructed a robot, but the night before the 2000 competition they accidentally "smoked their laptop computer," says Glover. As a result, they were not able to compete.
The next year Glover and the team traveled to Colorado Springs for the 2001 competition. They did compete, but they lost. After that showing, the students decided they needed more supervision, so Glover became their organizer and arranged for the local IEEE chapter and the Department of Electrical & Computer Engineering to sponsor them. Using an old storage room, a couple of computers and some leftover electrical equipment, Glover created the ECE Robotics Lab in the engineering building, where the students can work on and store their robots.
Carpenters built a model maze for them to conduct practice races. Glover said that although it would be nice to win this year's IEEE competition, his goal is not to have five winning teams. His goal is to give students the opportunity to use their electrical engineering skills.
"Robots are an excellent way of supporting electrical and computer engineering education," says Glover, noting that two out of the five UH teams are using the robotic competition as their senior design project. However, he is careful not to turn the robotics lab into a lecture classroom. The students do all their own research and make their own design decisions. Glover does supervise their work and he will tell a team if their design is completely unfeasible.
"You learn from the project," said Glover. "That's what projects are all about." The best thing educationally for them is to learn on their own, with guidance," he says.
What makes the construction of these robots so challenging is that they are "autonomous" robots. Unlike the robots built for most high school competitions, these robots cannot be remote-controlled. Their movements must be directed by a computer program that reads the input from the robots' infrared, sonar and touch sensors.
Once a robot is placed at the beginning of the maze, no human intervention is allowed. The robot must sense its environment. The sensors must be able to center the robot between two walls without making it weave from side to side. The sensors must also detect two black lines painted on the white ground at the end of the maze. As a robot passes over the double lines, a photocell should detect the difference in color, sound a buzzer and send a stop signal to the computer program.
Glover has decided that the April 5 run-off will mark the beginning of a biannual robotics competition series. Each spring the competition will double as the run-off for the IEEE contest, with the rules for that year's contest announced by the IEEE the previous fall. Each fall, the teams will compete in an exclusively UH competition. During the previous summer, Glover will invent a robotics challenge for the fall competition and any interested students can begin working on it.
This first run-off race will honor the ambitious students who initiated UH's involvement in the IEEE competition. Glover has asked the members of the original robotics team, Todd Powell, Satyajit Ketkar, Nathan Howard, Reed Hablinkski and R. J. Mate, to attend the run-off, where he will introduce them before the race and thank them for making the University of Houston a part of the rising world of robotics.