• UWA robotics students rank high at Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers competition

    Posted: April 14, 2017

    Author: Public Relations

    A team of engineering technology students from the University of West Alabama competed on April 1 at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Southeast Conference in Charlotte, N.C. The UWA Robotics Club returned to Livingston with an impressive 10th place tie, having been the only Division II school competing against 58 Division I schools.

    This year’s competition marks the first for the UWA Robotics Club to compete on this level, and the Club’s advisor said the team’s work was well-received.

    “We were welcomed by many other school teams, colleagues, and event organizers,” said Dr. Balakrishna Gokaraju, associate professor of computer information systems and technology. “Our team was also complemented for the unique design of its robot and especially the consistent performance of the robot on the scoreboard.”

    The competing team includes eight UWA students, all engineering technology majors. Jonathan Steele, a junior from Huntsville, Ala., is the lead programmer. Colley Dunagan, a junior from Coffeeville, Ala., is the lead designer, assisted in design by Richie Daniel, a junior from Franklin, Ga.

    The support team includes Matthew Cannon, a senior from Linden, Ala., Lane Clarke, a junior from Helena, Ala., Trevor Johnson, a senior from Arlington, Ala., Tyler Johnson, a junior from Decatur, Ala., and Andrew Warbington, a senior from Coker, Ala.

    Steele and Dunagan traveled to Charlotte for the conference, and both agree that the competition has boosted their confidence and helped them hone their skills to reach a level of national competitiveness that they wouldn’t have achieved otherwise.

    Dunagan, who was responsible for the building of the robot, the physical pieces, led a team in designing and building the frame, the cocking/shooting mechanism, and the swinging arm. He says he plans to work in the paper industry.

    “I am from this region, and paper is one of our main industries,” he said. “I’m glad to be in a program that prepares me so well for a career near my home. I hope to one day be the plant manager at one of these paper mills.”

    Dunagan says he’s interested in robotics because of the various aspects of it that must come together to be successful. “There’s the mechanical, electrical, and programming aspects. I’ve always been interested in mechanics and working with my hands to actually build something. I’ve learned so much in a short period of time that I otherwise wouldn’t have learned.”

    Steele was the lead programmer for the project. That means he was responsible for writing all the program codes and working on both the hardware and software to ensure that, when assembled, the robot was flawless with the best precision and accuracy possible.
    “It feels great to see all our hard work pay off,” Steele said. “This was our first Robotics team and our first competition, and we were just expecting to learn from the experience, but we found that we can compete just the same as the bigger schools that are fighting for the top spots every year. We were flattered to have those schools tell us they were impressed with our work and even to have them ask where UWA is so we could tell them. Next year we will fight for the top spot.”

    Steele said his interest in robotics stems from the fact that there is so much to be learned about robots.

    “Robotics is a wide-open field that will be affecting everyone soon,” he insisted. “Right now, there are so many problems in the field of robotics that need to be solved before robotics can make our lives easier. There’s a reason we don’t see robots all around us, and I would like to be a part of solving those problems.”

    Their participation in the competition began in January, when they submitted their project abstract. Competing in the “Robotics and Computer Vision” category, the requirements were that the project be original technical work on any aspects of engineering, science, and technology of current interest.

    To accomplish this, the team had to apply every ounce of knowledge they’ve gained in their courses at UWA.

    “All members of the team being juniors or seniors, they have taken courses that have provided the basic knowledge for hands-on work in the UWA Robotics Club,” explained Gokaraju. These classes include AC-DC Circuit Theory, Industrial Mechanics, Fluid Power, Solid State Electronics, Programmable Logic Controllers-1, Micro-controller Programming, Introduction to Programming Language, Trigonometry, Technical Physics, Calculus, and Computer Aided Drafting and Design. “Hence, by the time the students reach junior and senior classes, they can create robotic designs, fabrication, and programming individually.”

    “The engineering technology students could also be credited for this competition project as a capstone senior design course and gain three credit hours for their work,” Gokaraju explained.

    The team designed, built, and programmed an autonomous robot that can accomplish several tasks on the provided “game arena.” The game is based on Star Wars-inspired competition. The four stages were Light Saber Duel, Discovering the Unknown, Bring Down the Shields, and Firing the Torpedoes.

    In more common terms, the robot must pick up a foam dart like a Nerf® dart, travel across the playing field to various stops, then position itself for shooting the dart into a small target at the opposite end of the game arena.

    “An autonomous robot works independently and finds its own way,” explained Gokaraju. “That’s why programming is such an important aspect of this kind of project. There’s no remote control or real-time guidance that operates the robot. It’s programming is fine tuned to accomplish a goal, and in this case, that goal was to shoot the dart into the target, and our team’s robot did that flawlessly.”

    Robotics applications are used throughout manufacturing and production-based industries. Assembly lines, staged testing, packaging, welding, metallic and powder coat painting, all utilize robotics in enhancing productivity and efficiency.

    The UWA Robotics Club was initiated under the STEM Project ENGAGE program and College of Business and Technology Dean Dr. Wayne Bedford’s vision. Currently, the group’s members are engineering technology students from sophomore to senior level, placing them in the pipeline for sharing experience and knowledge among themselves by senior students to juniors and sophomores. The club has male and female members and is open to the involvement of interested mathematics, computer information systems, and physics majors as well.

    Bedford said that this competition has given the club a chance to make a strong first impression on the national scene, and they advanced on the opportunity.

    “We are very proud of our students in this event,” Bedford said. “To be the only Division II school in the competition, facing some of the best engineering schools in the country, our students really showed the caliber of our programs and the caliber of their own work by placing 10th out of 58 teams.”

    The club meets every other week to brainstorm their ideas for common goals and projects they are attempting to complete individually. As competitions draw near, the team meets every afternoon to stay on target.

    Aside from UWA’s own Robotics Club, several representatives from the program have been actively involved in the outreach of supporting and mentoring local high school robotics teams for their competitions for the past five years, including Gokaraju, other faculty, and students.

    “We have supported Sumter Central High School, Greene County High School, and the Demopolis Career Tech Center for their competitions in the fall season of every year,” Gokaraju explained. “We have also conducted several one day workshops for STEM Project ENGAGE team meetings, Science Saturday events, UWA Campus School workshops, and Upward Bound students. During the summer, we conduct two-week summer camps on robotics for supporting several grant programs.”

    The annual IEEE SoutheastCon conferences promote all aspects of theories and applications for engineering disciplines and attract researchers, professionals, and students.

    To learn more about the UWA Robotics Club, contact Dr. Balakrishna Gokaraju at bgokaraju@uwa.edu or call 205-652-3705. 

    PHOTO 1: Jonathan Steele (Huntsville, Ala.) and Colley Dunagan (Coffeeville, Ala.) fine-tune their robot before competing at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Southeast Conference in Charlotte, N.C.

    PHOTO 2: Colley Dunagan (blue shirt) and Jonathan Steele (red shirt) prep their autonomous robot on the game arena.

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