UBC students outpacing courseware with tech creations
Published Friday, August 10, 2018 7:17PM PDT
Last Updated Friday, August 10, 2018 7:32PM PDT
Princess Leia once implored Obi Wan Kenobi to help her as he was her only hope, but students at the University of British Columbia came to the rescue of tiny Ewoks and even Chewbacca for a final exam unlike any other.
The second year engineering students were tasked with designing, building and programming fully autonomous bots to “rescue” the miniature crocheted Star Wars figures from a two-metre square obstacle course.
The budding engineers had to flip a switch and then let the ungainly machines think for themselves, using sonar or specialized programming to follow black lines drawn onto the surface, adapt to gaps that made them drop tiny bridges, avoid falling off the edges and navigate around plastic Storm Trooper figurines that threatened to restart their “rescue mission.”
"It's a robot competition because it's fun, but what they're learning applies to almost every product that's made today,” explained UBC Physics and Engineering Director Andre Marziali.
“The [bots] operate the same way a Roomba does,” he says. “Their sensors that told them 'here's where I am, I'm navigating from this point to this point, I'm navigating this feature now, it's time to turn.' So it's what we call feedback control -- it's sensing your environment using a processor to make decisions on that and moving the object."
Everything from smart fridges to autonomous cars use similar technology, putting these young students on the right track for promising careers in the burgeoning field of smart devices.
With pun-based names such as Han Yolo and Revenge of the Fifth, the teams had only six weeks to design their bots, using 3-D printing components while hand-cutting other parts and even ordering specialized parts online. The students built on knowledge and techniques used by other engineering students and even mainstream autonomous inventions to give their contraptions the best agility and reliability they could in such a limited timeframe, often incorporating technologies they weren’t taught by instructors, including SONAR.
“It was not enough time,” admitted one student. “We were in the lab for 12 hours a day for 6 weeks, by the end we were in the lab all night."
Another student described non-stop troubleshooting to keep the jerry-rigged mechanisms functioning.
“We just had to be ready for failures,” she said, “because something or the other -- a connection broke, we had to rewire the whole thing, mechanical problems, software problems -- things you would not even think about [happened]. It's just hours and hours of debugging, I think that's where we spent most of our time and we did not account for that entirely in our design."
Those realizations and observations are exactly what instructors were aiming for.
"That's really one of the big purposes of this course,” says Marziali. “It looks like we're teaching electronics and mechanical design. We're [actually] teaching engineering, technology development, project management, team leadership, team management -- it's really about how to work in an engineering environment."
With the fate of Chewbacca and several Ewoks providing comic relief for the hundreds of family and friends on hand to cheer on the teams fighting for bragging rights. Those went to Admiral Trackbar, with Forbes Choy, Vladimir Novakovic, Chuan Du and Vladislav Pomogaev snagging top spot.
“We completely redesigned it five days ago,” said Pomogaev.
Their bot successfully picked up and deposited the most targets through several rounds of competition.
"It was very last-minute,” said Du. “We didn't expect it would be so consistent."