Photo courtesy of Maria Jose Alanis

February 14, 2017

Team Spotlight | The Droids You Were Looking For

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On a gloomy Saturday afternoon, most Cornell buildings are eerily silent. Not Carpenter Hall.

To the uninitiated, its basement seems more like an off-limits factory workspace. But inside, a shiny golden droid, Star Wars’ C3PO, casually rests against a pillar. Right opposite, a mini-rollercoaster fully equipped with a seat to simulate its sudden drops blocks out the clutter of electrical wires. No, this isn’t a storeroom for summer projects, it’s Ground Zero for Intel Cornell Cup.

“We were founded in 2012. We’re very similar to other project teams, the only difference is that we have our own competition in which we don’t compete but demonstrate our work,“ said Tahmid Mahbub ’17, ECE team lead.

Over forty teams from universities all over the United States showcase projects that demonstrate an ‘innovative use of embedded systems’. As opposed to laying out strict guidelines on what projects should achieve, part of the challengeis to identify and analyze a problem.

“It’s a unique idea in that its an embedded design competition where groups find a problem that they see in the world and define a solution. It’s very forward thinking in that you put the power in the student’s hands, you’re not telling them to do anything. You’re saying find something and then solve it,” said Ronnie Forster grad, MechE team lead.

According to Harley Dietz ’17, MechE team lead, the open-endedness of the competition makes a big difference. As opposed to having the same goal every year and optimizing a pre-existing solution, the competition sees a variety of submissions each year, often geared to very different problems.

“In the same year where you had a robotic arm, you have a group that created a rear-view sensor for a motorcycle. It was just a $100 kit that you could attach to any motorcycle. It’s crazy that those are two things that compete in the same competition,” Dietz said.

The team’s role is to facilitate such innovation by showcasing their own projects, often involving upcoming technologies that competing teams have struggled to use.

“In the past, we’ve looked at submissions and looked at what we can help out with, how we can use our projects to fill any of these gaps. It’s great to see what people come up with in the competition. It’s educational for us and we also provide back all our documentation and how we did things in order to help them build even better. It’s a nice back and forth,” Forster said.

An example of such a project is a rollercoaster simulator which the team hoped would demonstrate how to integrate aspects of virtual reality into existing creations. However, their most prized project is a Star Wars character: R2D2. First introduced in the competition’s third edition, the droid is now making a comeback.

“The idea is that it resembles R2D2 from the movie, but functionally it’s meant to be a semi-autonomous lab assistant robot which figures out where in the environment it is and interacts with it,” Mahbub said.

With its second iteration, the team hopes to tackle some of the problems facing robots entering wider use. The most pressing concern is that of localization, a process in which a robot attempts to understand its environment. Conventional GPS systems are of little use in settings where uncertainty needs to be kept to centimeters, not meters. Consequently, the team’s R2D2 contains plenty of sensors to allow the robot to create a 3D map of it’s environment.

The team is also assembling a ‘Minibot,’ essentially an educational tool that helps people learn how to create robots themselves.

“We’re competing against different commercially available robotics kits to make one that gives more power to the users. This means that users are more involved in actually making the robot: doing the coding, wiring it up, manufacturing it themselves. They’re actually learning about robotics rather than just putting together a kit,” Forster said.

The team is working on a couple of bots to narrow down the components the kit should contai
n and gauge the different projects it could cater to. Among others, smaller sub-teams work on racer bots that interact with virtual environments and swarm bots that interact with each other as they complete a pre-defined task.

Swarm bots assembled using the team's minibot kits.

Photo courtesy of Maria Jose Alanis

Swarm bots assembled using the team’s minibot kits.

Despite the intricacies of these components, the team aims to manufacture most parts themselves, instead of buying modules and wiring them together.

“Even though it is a very simple kit, it’s still a very interesting challenge to minimize cost, minimize size and make it as intuitive as possible. We bring those groups together to talk about the kit, what needs one bot has that perhaps another doesn’t and how we can ensure that the kit serves everybody but doesn’t have too much extraneous stuff,” Forster said.

One of the team’s key goals is to ensure that working on projects is an educational experience for all. Each year, projects are carefully documented, detailing the processes used to create prototypes, the tools used and various design considerations. Once compiled, the information is made available online.

“People can go take a look and say, I really don’t have any idea of how to build an R2 and they can follow our documentation to do that. Or even a certain part of our documentation. It’s really going back to that philosophy of being an educational tool so that people can pick it up and really learn through what we did,” Forster said.

Forster insists that maintaining such an educational environment is just as important within the team.

“People are learning all the time. We take on freshman and sophomores who may not have as many capabilities but they’ll shadow different teams, take part in training sessions on say CAD software or GitHub. And so when they become juniors or seniors, they’ve really learnt something from their roles,” Forster said. “This is a good opportunity for people to experiment outside their major. It really helps people figure out more about themselves and learn to make cool things.”