Robotics at Maryland Makes a Splash: U-Md. Students Win International Underwater Robotics Competition, Host New Speedway Competition, Sept. 6

2008-08-07 08:07:00

    COLLEGE PARK, Md., Aug. 7 /EMWNews/ -- The University of

Maryland's student robotics group, Robotics@Maryland, won the Association

for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and Office of Naval Research

11th Annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Competition

in San Diego, Calif., on Aug. 3. Fresh off their victory in that

competition, University of Maryland robotics students are preparing for

another competition to be hosted a little closer to home --- right in

College Park, in fact. The university will host a new regional competition

for land robots, the Autonomous Robot Speedway, on Sept. 6.


    The Robotics@Maryland team competed in the AUV Competition against 25

other teams from across the United States, India, Canada and Japan,

including Cornell University, University of Florida, University of

Wisconsin, North Carolina State, University of Texas at Dallas, Ecole de

technologie superieure, U.S. Naval Academy, University of Victoria, Georgia

Tech, and University of Colorado at Boulder.

    Each team was challenged to design and build an AUV capable of

navigating realistic underwater missions. The University of Maryland team

entered the final round in first place among the eight finalists, and held

on to win the competition in only its second year of participation.

    U-Md.'s team of thirteen overcame many challenges during the


    "Despite losing our main vehicle computer, busting a thruster

propeller, temporarily losing our firewire cameras, and watching three team

member's laptops die (including mine), the group worked together and

handled each problem in turn," said Joseph Gland, a graduate student

advisor for the Robotics@Maryland team.

    The final competition included a range of tasks, including dead

reckoning approximately 50 feet through the starting gate, pipeline

following, buoy docking, tracking and hovering over an acoustic pinger,

grabbing an object and surfacing with the object to a floating ring.

    The Robotics@Maryland team is made up of students from across the

campus, including electrical, computer, aerospace, and mechanical

engineering majors from the university's A. James Clark School of

Engineering, plus physics, math and computer science majors. The team was

assisted by two Clark School professors who served as faculty advisors for

the student group: Prof. Dave Akin in aerospace engineering's Space Systems

Lab and Prof. Nuno Martins in electrical and computer engineering and the

Institute for Systems Research.

    The Robotics@Maryland team benefited from a particularly useful and

unique facility at the Clark School's Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility in

the Space Systems Laboratory on the University of Maryland campus -- the

only such university-based facility in the country. The 50-foot diameter,

25-foot deep water tank is used to simulate the microgravity environment of

space. Prof. Akin allowed the student group to test their autonomous

underwater robot, Tortuga II, at the facility, which proved a valuable

environment for practicing the robot's maneuvering capabilities.

    The team is sponsored by the Department of Electrical and Computer

Engineering, the Department of Aerospace Engineering, the Institute for

Systems Research, and the Clark School of Engineering, and also receives

corporate support from Clark School Corporate Partner BAE Systems, E.K. Fox

and Apple, who donated the Mac Mini computer that was used to create and

control Tortuga II. Memsense was also a sponsor, donating an Inertial

Measurement Unit and other electronic hardware. Gaining increased support

for their AUV project in the last year proved a key factor in the team's

successful second attempt in the annual competition, which earned the

students a $7,000 prize.

    Many of the Robotics@Maryland students have also taken advantage of

courses at the University of Maryland designed to stimulate students'

interest in solving open-ended problems, such as those involved in

developing robots at the Clark School.



    Gilmer Blankenship, professor of electrical and computer engineering

(ECE), is experimenting with new and innovative teaching techniques in his

senior-level course, "Autonomous Robotics." The course is one of the

U-Md.'s Capstone Design Courses, which are intended to allow students to

synthesize solutions to open-ended problems.

    In Blankenship's course, students work in small teams to build and

program robots to compete in performing specific tasks. The robots can be

described technically as autonomous mobile sensor platforms, consisting of

a truck-like frame and wheels, with an onboard laptop computer, making each

robot approximately 15" x 20" in size. The students can communicate with

the robots using wireless links and a remote desktop application, as well

as other custom applications the students design.

    The emphasis of the course is on designing strategies and tactics, and

programming the robots to succeed at challenging tasks, such as cooperating

to pursue another robot, or racing around an obstacle course. The physical

features of the robot platforms are much less important than their

algorithms and software, which the student groups develop throughout the

semester. To emphasize this, all of the robots are physically identical and

have the same sensors to control movement.

    The course is unique in that it allows students to benefit from

innovations accomplished by students previously enrolled in the course.

Elements of the best student designs are carried over to the next

semester's class, so new students enrolled in the course build on a canon

of knowledge, and start with software systems that have been successful at

one or more tasks. This requires the new students to come up to speed on

software written by someone else, a common task in real-world engineering

design projects, reflecting the environment that the students will

ultimately find in industry or research laboratory after graduation.

    "The experience has been extremely rewarding," said Scott Watson, a May

2008 computer engineering graduate, and a Robotics@Maryland team member.

"When students take control of their own learning, it's amazing to see how

fast we can go. Surprisingly, another benefit of the class is that I

realized the importance and potential application of all the theory that

I've learned up to this point."

    Blankenship has introduced new problems into the course each semester

that challenge students to innovate and create solutions to problems even

he admits may not be solvable. For example, last year, Blankenship asked a

team of students to develop a method for a ground robot to control an

unstable aerial robot, creating a mechanism for the aerial robot to hover

directly over the ground robot. Amazingly, a team of his students managed

to accomplish this late one evening, well after midnight. They nearly

called him in the middle of the night to announce their success. "I told

them they should have called me," said Blankenship. "I am very glad to see

that the challenges in this course have inspired this kind of enthusiasm

from our students."


    The enthusiasm that has developed from students engaged in robotics

activities at University of Maryland helped lead to the involvement in a

new regional robotics event, the first annual Autonomous Small Robot

Speedway competition. The inaugural race is scheduled for Sept. 6 on the

College Park campus.

    The event was conceived and organized by the Washington, DC Chapter of

the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Robotics and

Automation Society (IEEE-RAS) in conjunction with student members of

Robotics@Maryland. The event is co-sponsored by IEEE-RAS, the University of

Maryland's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Robotics

Research, LLC, based in Gaithersburg, Md.

    The competition, which attracted seven teams for its inaugural event,

will take place outdoors on campus. Each team's autonomous robot will race

around an array of traffic cones organized in an elliptical shape.

    "The technical challenges posed by this competition will inspire

creative solutions by the participants and nurture an appreciation for

hands-on engineering projects, thus bridging the gap between theory and

practice," said IEEE-RAS representative Melanie Vida, lead organizer for

the event. "It is an opportunity to develop an autonomous vehicle that

integrates sensing, control and embedded computing."

    The robots' autonomous navigation will be comprised of obstacle

avoidance, dead reckoning, telemetry, onboard sensor processing, computer

vision, and dealing with uncertainty in environmental conditions such as

uneven lighting conditions, uneven surface, and unevenly spaced cones.

    This systems engineering exercise will once again provide students at

the University of Maryland, as well as from other teams engaged in the

competition, an opportunity to practice an integrated, interdisciplinary

approach to solving problems and optimizing performance.

    The students' vision for the Autonomous Robot Speedway race is to

continue to grow the event each year with the goal of making it the premier

outdoor robotics competition in the Mid-Atlantic region.The University of

Maryland and the Clark School have recently swept several national

competitions with its student teams. Here are some of the recent wins:

    Aug. 3: Robotics@Maryland wins the Association for Unmanned Vehicle

Systems International and Office of Naval Research 11th Annual

International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Competition in San Diego,


    June 29: The Terps Racing team wins the Formula SAE West 2008 with a

car designed, built and driven by U-Md. students. The team competed against

83 other teams from all over the world.

    June 25: Aerospace engineering undergraduate students win first place

in the NASA Revolutionary Advanced Systems Concepts - Academic Liaison

(RASC-AL) student design competition in Cocoa Beach, Fla., with Project

TURTLE (Terrapin Undergraduate Rover for Terrestrial Lunar Exploration).

    Fall 2007: The U-Md. Solar Decathlon team places first in the nation in

the U.S. Department of Energy competition to build fully operational,

livable solar-powered homes on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

    NOTE TO EDITORS: high-res images and video is available with the online

version of this press release:

    More Information:


    AUV Competition:

    Autonomous Robotic Speedway Competition:

    About the A. James Clark School of Engineering

    The Clark School of Engineering, situated on the rolling, 1,500-acre

University of Maryland campus in College Park, Md., is one of the premier

engineering schools in the U.S.

    The Clark School's graduate programs are collectively the fastest

rising in the nation. In U.S. News & World Report's annual rating of

graduate programs, the school is 17th among public and private programs

nationally, 11th among public programs nationally and first among public

programs in the mid-Atlantic region. The School offers 13 graduate programs

and 12 undergraduate programs, including degree and certification programs

tailored for working professionals.

    The school is home to one of the most vibrant research programs in the

country. With major emphasis in key areas such as communications and

networking, nanotechnology, bioengineering, reliability engineering,

project management, intelligent transportation systems and space robotics,

as well as electronic packaging and smart small systems and materials, the

Clark School is leading the way toward the next generations of engineering


    Visit the Clark School homepage at

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