March 17, 2017

Robotics teams take top spots in Midwest contest

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. – Two robotics teams at Southern Illinois University Carbondale came home with the top spots after competing at the Midwest Robotics Design Competition last weekend.

The two teams from SIU’s College of Engineering – a team from the registered student organization affiliated with the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering and the SIU Robotics team – placed first and second, respectively, at the competition, held March 10-11 at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. A third SIU team, Absaluki, did not place in the competition.

The two-day competition tested the skills and creativity of engineering students who participated in one of the longest-running robotics competitions in the country. 

It was just the second time SIU participated in the competition. Last year, the ATMAE team from SIU made its debut at the MRDC and captured second place.

This year, SIU’s ATMAE team was unofficially nicknamed “the senior team,” as it was mostly made up of seniors who spent a large portion of their budget on top technology for their robot. The SIU Robotics team, by contrast, was nicknamed “the budget team,” as it challenged itself to spend as little as possible, using old components and leftovers in a creative way to field a winner.

The budget team mostly was comprised of salty veterans from last year’s second-place team, said Brad Vahling, design team captain and a senior in industrial technology from Teutopolis. 

“This competition win was a team effort,” Vahling said. “We invest a lot of time developing our group. Our team is very good at overcoming obstacles and working together to solve problems and coming up with innovative solutions. Throughout our design process we had several brainstorming sessions with full team participation. We try to utilize our members for what they are best at.”

Bruce DeRuntz, professor of technology and faculty adviser to the ATMAE team, said learning is most effective when students are able to apply the technical principles they learn in the classroom, and SIU’s College of Engineering excels at providing such opportunities.

“Additionally, being a part of a design competition team gives our students a wonderful identity in the college and an incredible group of friends that they will keep the rest of their life,” DeRuntz said.

DeRuntz said the ATMAE Robotics team has demonstrated the ability to punch above its weight in such competitions.

“The team dominates competitors who have far greater resources,” he said. “Our team succeeds because of their unwavering focus on the two principles that are most important to employers. First, they are able to effectively plan, organize and execute a project on time, under budget, and meet performance objectives. Second, they go to great lengths to build their team before they build the robot.

“What they learned here will be transferred into successful careers and they will again out-shine the completion,” DeRuntz said.

Each year, the competition designs a new challenge for teams to meet, based on the requirements and tasks each robot must complete. The year, each match lasted six minutes with four robots competing simultaneously.

Operators had various obstacles to overcome and tasks to complete, including navigating their robot through a blind tunnel, retrieving a key and unlocking a soccer ball dispenser, retrieving and then placing the balls in a bin to score points. At times they had to battle other robots for soccer balls

Throughout the first day of the competition, which is a practice day, none of the teams were able to insert the key into the soccer ball dispenser, prompting officials to change the rules and release the balls with two minutes to go in the match. 

“The timed release allowed teams to continue to try to insert the key, however it allowed the teams that were not able to complete this part of the competition to continue trying,” Vahling said.

The time of each round was reduced by 30 seconds until the semi-finals, which had one minute for ball collection and scoring. During the final round officials allowed two minutes for this task. 

“The key to victory for this competition was having a solid repeatable design for collecting and depositing the soccer ball,” Vahling said. “Also, having a good strategy and keeping track of the other teams and the clock were critical to our success.”

The ATMAE team robot design included an aluminum frame containing bungee cords, which expanded as operators lowered them onto a soccer ball, allowing the ball through. Next, the operator raised the mechanism and dumped the ball into a track.

The SIU Robotics team design utilized a spinner made from a push broom. The spinner pulled balls into a wooden hopper with a trap door. The trap door was powered by a motor modified with a piece of metal that blocked the balls from rolling out. The robot used a wooden wedge mounted on its front to open the scoring box.

Vahling said teamwork and communication also were key to the SIU teams winning the top spots in the competition, by helping them manage the clock, monitor their competitors and navigate the course effectively.

“In the semifinals, our ‘Budget team’ was almost knocked out, but by tracking the other teams’ progress we were able to identify that we needed to score three balls to move on,” Vahling said. “Generally we left around 40 seconds to open and score the collected balls, however in this match since we knew we had to score more balls we spent extra time collecting the balls, which allowed us to score three balls, pushing us into second place with seconds left in the match.”

ATMAE team members include:

Lincoln Kinley, team captain, junior in computer engineering from Springfield

Matthew Dempsey, team first mate, junior in computer engineering from Roscoe

Brad Vahling, team design captain, senior in in industrial technology from Teutopolis

Dana Mitchell, senior in computer engineering from Chrisman

Connor Eaton, senior in electrical engineering from Carterville

Mason Wagner, senior in computer engineering from Danville

Robert McDonald, senior in industrial management and applied engineering from Sidney

SIU Robotics Team members include:

Nick Sjoberg, team captain, junior in engineering technology from Algonquin

Paul Schumacher, team first mate, senior in industrial management and applied engineering from Teutopolis

Garret Lyons, sophomore in mechanical engineering from Pontiac

Clayton Burch, junior in mechanical engineering from Bloomfield, Ind.

Richie Bisgaard, senior in mechanical engineering from Clarksville, Tenn.

Kyle Stilwill, senior in industrial technology from Taylorville 

Absaluki team members include:

Kamil Molczyk, team captain, freshman in pre-computer engineering from Lake in the Hills

Allison McMinn, team first mate, sophomore in electrical engineering from Chatham

Sarah Handrock, junior in computer engineering from McHenry

Ryan Guss, junior in computer engineering from Sycamore

Mason Parrone' from Murphysboro

Luke McFarlane, sophomore in mechanical engineering from Washington

Eric Lunde, senior in mechanical engineering from Rockford