March 30, 2016

Robotics team fares well in state competition

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – A robotics team from Southern Illinois University Carbondale was a top finisher in competition held recently in the state. 

The team from SIU’s College of Engineering finished second at the Midwestern Robotics Design Competition hosted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The two-day competition tested the skills and creativity of engineering students who competed in one of the longest-running robotics competitions in the country. 

It was the first time a team from SIU participated in the competition, said Brad Vahling, president of the SIU Robotics Team and a junior in industrial technology from Teutopolis. 

“This was a very valuable experience for all of our members,” Vahling said.  “We were taught the values of perseverance, determination and ingenuity. Every time we were presented with a problem at the competition we buckled down and found a solution. In the past year we have created a high-performance team of engineers that pursues perfection and innovation. Our results speak for themselves.” 

The tasks faced by teams during the competition involved creating a robot that could open doors and load and unload golf balls and foam balls into designated areas. Teams could score points by opening the doors in the competition ring, unloading golf balls from stations in the four corners of the ring and then depositing the balls designated by the team’s color into a bin. Teams also could score points by collecting foam balls and depositing them in a bin located in the center of the ring, which also featured a spinning ring meant to make the task more challenging. 

The first day of competition was a practice day for the teams, with the second day starting the actual competition. Vahling said the team decided to focus on scoring points by opening doors and unloading golf balls. Team members added a wedge to grab the edge of the door, which they modified several times – even completely rebuilding it once – during the competition. 

To handle the golf balls, the team used a gear motor suspended by springs that turned a ball dispenser and released balls. Originally mounted to the frame, the students found the motor didn’t always function correctly because of some variability between the ball dispensers that did not allow the motor to correctly mate with the knob that controlled the dispenser. But solving unexpected problems is part of the competition, and the team rose to the challenge. 

“The night before the second day, we built a spring mechanism that allowed the motor to be suspended in air,” Vahling explained. “This allowed the motor to automatically center on the knob of the dispenser. This last-minute modification allowed us to be a top competitor.” 

SIU’s robot also was the only one to use wood for its chassis, making it some 46 pounds lighter than the next lightest robot. Its comparative light weight translated to superior maneuverability and a high top speed, giving the team another advantage over the competition. 

After six rounds of competition in the double-elimination tournament, SIU made it to the final round. Although the team’s strategy of concentrating on opening doors and unloading golf balls paid off – it was the best overall at doing such tasks – the winning team from the Illinois Institute of Technology was able to squeak past SIU by collecting foam balls more effectively. 

“Overall the competition was a blast for all our members,” Vahling said. “We got to mingle with engineers from around the state, as well as check out their designs.” 

Academic advisers for the team are Mandara Savage, executive director of SIU Extended Campus; and Bruce DeRuntz, professor of technology. Student members of the team also included: 

Nick Sjoberg, team captain, a sophomore in engineering technology from Algonquin

Paul Schumacher, a junior in industrial technology from Teutopolis 

Kyle Stilwill, a senior in industrial technology from Taylorville 

Sarah Handrock, a sophomore in computer engineering from McHenry 

Matthew Dempsey, a junior in computer engineering from Roscoe 

SIUC engineering students

Southern Illinois University Carbondale engineering students (from left) Paul Schumacher, Kyle Stilwill and Nick Sjoberg work on their team’s robot during the Midwestern Robotics Design Competition hosted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign earlier this month. (Photo provided)