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Engineering students' snowplow wins $4K

By Katie M. Taylor
On February 12, 2013

A crowd of Minnesotans stand and watch in the 0 degree weather as four shivering Miami University engineering students put their work to the test. They are all watching the large, electrical snowplow the students put thousands of hours and dollars into building from scratch.

The team of four Miami graduate and undergraduate students, junior RJ Marcus, senior Chad Sobota, and grad students Bob Cole and Mark Carroll competed in the third annual Autonomous Snowplow Competition, an event sponsored by the Institute of Navigation (ION) Satellite Division.

Though this was current members' second year competing in St. Paul, Minn. at the end of January, Miami's team, Redblade, took home a $4,000 prize after coming in second to Ohio University for the third year in a row.

The competition consists of five scored components including a preliminary design review, ten page final report, student presentation, and two fields of snow where Cole said the robots are put to the test.

"The idea for it is you're given just a patch of snow and your robot that you build has to just go out and plow it autonomously, so once you start it up there's no intervention between us and the robot," Cole said.

In order for the snowplow to run autonomously, Redblade incorporated GPS technology. According to Cole, the team was forced to go outside their comfort zone to create the robot.

"You learn stuff you never even think about from a programming standpoint," Cole said "There's so much stuff we've never done before in any class. We had to design the entire thing ourselves and we're all electrical and computer engineers, so we don't know anything about mechanical stuff, so we had to figure all that out."

Cole said though the event is a fun time, it prompted a lot of stress for he and his teammates.

"You've got to plan for everything," Cole said. "So many things can go wrong, we found that out the tough way."

According to Cole, the high rise buildings in St. Paul caused interference with the GPS technology being used. Sobota said the freezing temperatures took a toll as well.

"I don't know exactly what happened but basically it was so cold that our computer that runs the program actually just died," Sobota said. "[The] laptop would usually run for 40 minutes or so, but it ran for five minutes and died just because of the cold."

Despite such obstacles, Sobota said the team pulled through for another successful year.

Three of the four members of Redblade began the project for last year's competition, Marcus being the only newcomer. The team spent thousands of hours revamping the project multiple times.

"We built the robot last year, it was our senior design project, and this year we're just trying to pass it down to a couple undergraduates," Cole said. "I think last year we lost count in like March or April but at that point of last year we were at about 5,000 man hours, so about 1250 hours a piece."

Sobota said the competition gave them the opportunity to utilize information learned in college in a tangible way.

"Now I have actual hands-on experience actually making a project and getting it to work and obviously getting second place shows that we did a good job," Sobota said.

According to him, his participation in the event may have even influenced the placement of his recent job acceptance.

"I think this project landed the job that I got because I actually got assigned at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, which is the master control station for all GPS satellites," Sobota said.

Marcus also believes it with help him find a job in the future.

"Employers really want to see how you can apply what you're learning in class because anybody can get an "A" in a class, but it shows extra effort if you have a really cool project like this," Marcus said.

Along with the practical benefits of taking part in the Autonomous Snow Plow Competition, the team members agreed that it was a unique experience.

"Leading up to [the competition] in January, we were going over to Goggin Ice Center like every day and stealing snow," Cole said.

According to him, they hauled the snow over to the engineering building to practice their plowing technique.

Along with the snowplow event, the team also competed in the ION Robotic Lawnmower Competition, which they said required even more skill.

"We did the snowplow in January and that was kind of our stepping stone for the lawnmower to make sure we were in a good place because the lawnmower was a lot harder," Cole said. "Basically, they give you a field, and they put a random flower bed in the middle, and they put like a fence up and there was a dog that ran out in front of you, so there was a lot of stuff you had to stop for."

According to Cole, this isn't the end for Redblade; they continue to search for various robotic endeavors.

"We're going to do another competition that Miami has never done before, it's the intelligent ground vehicle competition," Cole said. "I guess it's pretty big, 40 or so schools go to it, so we're going to try and check that out and see how we do."

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