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May The Best Robot Win

July 2, 2012

By Wileen Wong Kromhout

(To see all of Matthew Chin's robot photos, please click on a number: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 )

In only its second year, the rice rover robotics competition again brought excitement and joy to mechanical engineering (ME) seniors finishing up what has been described as one of the most challenging courses of their career at UCLA. In this newly redesigned two-term sequence, 126 students making up 22 teams, were asked once more to design and build an autonomous vehicle for the transportation of bulk material, this time with a much smaller budget. 

“Although the design project was the same, a rice rover, this year we asked the students to complete their rover project with a fraction of last year’s budget,” said Robert Shaefer, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the UCLA Henry Samueli School of Engineering and Applied Science. “This year each team had only $330 as opposed to $1,000 to design and build their rovers.”
But despite the smaller budget, students embraced the challenge, using more ingenuity by recycling scrap material and finding used motors.

“Despite the much lower budget, the final design products this year were a great improvement from last year, which goes to show that more funds do not necessarily improve design and performance,” said Shaefer. “From what I have seen, not only are the products better designed, but the performance and success rate has almost tripled.”

mae-robotics-DSC_0349-350px.jpgThe new capstone design sequence was unveiled during winter quarter of 2010 by the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering (MAE) Department after two years of extensive preparations and refinement. The capstone sequence was created with the goal of providing students with a better design experience.

Instruction for the first term focuses on concepts with topics ranging from mechanical component design and mechatronics to thermo design and mechanical system design. Lab work includes CAD (computer-aided design), CAD analysis, mechatronics and conceptual design for individual projects. In the second term, students are then provided with opportunities for fabrication and testing, project demonstration and finally competition with their fellow classmates. Students work in groups of five to seven throughout the two course series. 

“This year, a lot of organizational changes were made and many more details were ironed out,” said Andrew Hauk, leader of the first place team in the competition. “This year a lot of the robots seemed to be performing pretty well. I think only two of the robots were able to finish the competition successfully last year because it was such a new program.”
Though many have expressed the experience is intense, with many hours of commitment, they also admit the knowledge they’ve acquired is invaluable, especially for those about to start their careers in industry.  
“The class is extremely hands on. There was instruction and guidance but definitely it was left up to us to figure things out,” said Jonathan Salfity, Hauk’s teammate. “The most challenging part for me was getting thrown into the programming and wiring of things that we’ve never seen before. It’s a learning experience you struggle through but I also think you learn the best that way too.”

The instructors of this year’s sequence included Professors Christopher Lim, Kevin Chu and Robert Shaefer. Four Teaching Assistants and two MAE staff members also provided additional support. 

mae-robotics-DSC_0402-230px.jpg “This was our one time to actually have a team project so it was really cool to have an opportunity to get to know new people and build a team,” said Dana D’Amico. “Producing something like our rice rover is something we don’t get to do normally.”

“It was a huge learning curve for us all and I think it is great experience for the real world. You build a lot of confidence in yourself in that you can actually think up something, make it happen, get all the resources, plan it and then finance it. It was hard work but it was fun too,” said D’Amico’s teammate, Leslee Bell.

For the competition, the rover not only needed to follow a pre-designed pathway but it had to be able to dump a payload of rice into a collection bin at the end of the path. Prior to the big day, students are provided with a detailed description of the pathway (three platforms and two ramps), along with other prerequisites like how the vehicle should be powered, its size, its movement along the pathway and of course, a budget.

Teams who placed in the top three this year were:
First place: “Team Cool Jazz” (Team 14)
Andrew Houck, Jason Bakhshi, Devon Leong, Jonathan Salfity, Ryan Kurt Allen, and David Ross
A video of their rice rover during competition is available below.

Second place:  “15”  (Team 15)
Susie Boyland, Aditya Chandramohan, Keith Katano, Ben Kolnowski, Sean Scott, and Daryl Wada

Third place: “Rice Knowing You” (Team 18)
Alex Baker, Amanda Fujii,  Aaron Go, Matthew Jew, Daniel Nguyen, Daniel Yang, and  Michael Young
A video of their rice rover during competition is available below.

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