ONU students compete in the ONU Robotics Challenge

ONU engineering students compete using the technology that will drive the autonomous vehicles of the future

Ohio Northern University engineering students put the course in coursework at the first annual ONU Robotics Challenge on Friday, Dec. 10, in the lobby of the James Lehr Kennedy Engineering Building. Students in Dr. Ziad Youssfi’s Embedded Real-time Application (ECCS 3351) class battled with wheeled robots that they programmed to follow a course made up of a twisting and turning black line. Two robots from competing teams started on opposite sides of the course and the winner was the first robot to make it back to its starting position, or catch up and bump the other robot from behind. Students remade the course after each round until the bracket-style competition determined its champion.

The course and competition provided students with a hands-on, high-impact learning opportunity to program algorithms for embedded real-time systems, one of the most important and widely used aspects of modern computing. Real-time computing relies on collecting and interpreting data and then responding to that data in a constrained time frame. Advanced applications of embedded real-time systems include the flight controls on SpaceX’s reusable rocket boosters, self-driving cars and even the robot vacuum you might have in your living room. Without this area of computer and electrical engineering, autonomous vehicles simply would not exist.

“I decided to include robotics in ECCS 3351 for the first time this semester. This inclusion not only gave the students more concrete examples for embedded systems, but it also allowed them to have a hands-on and fun experience. As students learned more advanced topics in the lab, it was natural for me to think of giving them a challenge at the end to celebrate their accomplishments,” said Youssfi. “The atrium of the new JLK Engineering Building provided a perfect setting for the Challenge, with onlookers watching from the upper floors. When the students and I started cheering for the robots, I knew we had succeeded.”

The ONU Robotics Challenge posed a far simpler problem than returning a rocket from space–after all, the robot just had to follow a black line on a white surface—but this simplicity allowed students to be creative in their approaches, and the competition aspect forced them to find the best solution of all the available options. The point of this exercise wasn’t just to program a robot that can follow a line around a course, it was to be the best at doing so, and the students took the challenge to heart.

“I talked to a lot of the other teams, and everyone has approached this challenge differently,” said Luke Deweese, a junior electrical engineering major. “Everyone’s solution to the course is different, how they read the lines, how they approach each turn—they all have their own solution.”

Deweese and teammate Dominic Hupp, a junior computer engineering major, relied on trial and error to program a robot that made it all the way to the final match. “All the robots are the same, so it’s really the material that we’ve been taught in class that sets the teams apart and determines what the robot does and how well it does it,” said Hupp.

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