January 12, 2005

Class project combined fun with practical applications Dawgzooka a hit with basketball fans

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- The Southern Illinois University Carbondale men's basketball team and its rabid fans aren't the only ones making noise in the SIU Arena this season.

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Meet Dawgzooka. Similar to a high-powered paintball gun, the radio-controlled Dawgzooka shoots T-shirts into the upper reaches of the Arena during home basketball games, much to the delight of thousands of Saluki fans.

Students in a microcontroller programming class did all of the wiring, embedding of the microprocessor and programming of Dawgzooka, assistant professor Martin A. Hebel said.

Dawgzooka was one of several class projects considered to start the fall semester. Part of the inspiration for Dawgzooka came from the experience of Hebel and several students who competed in the DIY television network's "Robot Rivals" series. A three-member team from SIUC defeated teams from several other universities before losing in the semifinals of the 2003 competition.

Tim Byrnes, a senior in electronic systems technology from Red Bud, played a major role in designing the launch system, and Jason E. Hartle, also a senior in electronic systems technology from Champaign, the control system of Dawgzooka. But all seven class members had a part in development and construction, including artwork design and locating sponsors. The chassis came from a decommissioned bomb squad robot belonging to SIUC's Department of Public Safety.

Dawgzooka is fully adjustable, and can shoot up to 280 pounds per square inch. At games, however, it shoots at 150 pounds per square inch to a distance of about 65 to 75 yards.

Dawgzooka's concept came from two different sources, said associate professor William R. Devenport, chair of the School of Information Systems and Applied Technologies in the College of Applied Sciences and Arts. One was the Robot Rivals' competition, where competitors built the most accurate golf ball cannon, a "magnified paintball gun complete with gun sights," Devenport said. In addition, CASA Dean Paul D. Sarvela, a big baseball fan, inquired about the possibility of building something similar to a "Bratzooka," featured at home games of the Midwest League's Wisconsin Timber Rattlers.

But while shooting prizes into the Arena stands is fun, the educational aspect of the project is also important, Devenport stressed. The department's focus is how to apply technology to solve problems.

"A lot of the principles that they learned in this novelty are now being put to good use as we work with one of our quadriplegic instructors in upgrading one of his wheelchairs," he said. "What we have learned here has been fun, and now we can take those skills they have learned and apply them to something that is a real need."

The class also learned how to see projects through to completion, Hebel said.

"It's one thing to just slap something together and try it and say, ‘we made it work,' " said Hebel. "It's another thing to make it look good enough for an appearance at a game and make sure it is safe enough. Many days were spent making sure it looked just right and making sure everything worked perfectly on it."

Dawgzooka is proving to be a hit beyond the confines of the Arena. Earlier this month, Dawgzooka appeared at a high school basketball tournament in Springfield, firing approximately 70 shirts into the stands during four games.

Dawgzooka's sponsors and contributors include the Southern Illinois University Carbondale Department of Public Safety, Jimmy John's Subs, Garner Paintball, SIU Arena and Saluki Central.

Promoting excellence in undergraduate education is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.

(CAPTION: Getting pumped up – Nathan D. Donovan (left) and Kurt H. Eickelberg, seniors in electronic systems technologies at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, get the Arena crowd pumped up at the Dec. 11 Saluki men’s basketball game against Murray State for “Dawgzooka,” which shoots T-shirts into the stands. Donovan is from Columbia, Eickelberg is from Tampa, Fla.)

Photo by Steve Buhman