Robot vehicles roaring success

It was a time of excitement, nerves, and great pride as twenty-three student teams assembled in the mechanical engineering machine shop Monday afternoon for the Fall 2011 Mec E 260 Design Competition.

As part of the requirements for Mec E 260, a second year course which teaches the basics of mechanical engineering design and machining skills and culminates in an intense competition, each team had invested countless hours of hard work to design and build a robotic vehicle that could move independently while carrying cargos of varying weights.

During the competition, each vehicle was required to make three separate runs around the track, each time carrying a different weight. Interestingly, the ability to make accurate predictions was part of the unique assignment.

The teams were tasked with predicting their vehicle’s elapsed time and final speed for the run by executing a computer-based dynamic simulation model, with the teams being awarded points based on the accuracy of their predictions.

“The challenge this year is that the performance of the vehicle must be predicted very accurately in order to score points,” says Mec E 260 instructor Roger Toogood, adding the experience instills valuable skills that cannot be solely taught in the classroom. “Students experience the entire design and production process from problem inception to final product delivery.”

Student Kim Casemore of “Team Number Eight The Great,” says the experience helped her develop practical skills. “I didn’t have much hands-on experience before the course, so being in the shop and learning the different properties and processes on how to manufacture and assemble things was valuable.”

Casemore adds these skills will be essential in the future.“When we’re done school and get out in the field, we’re not just going to be sitting at a desk with a textbook solving problems. We will have to understand how things are connected and what works and what doesn’t.”

Even difficulties can lead to a positive learning experience, as Weran’s team discovered.  A week prior to the competition, each team must present their vehicle for an “insurance run.” Unfortunately, only two days before the insurance run, Weran’s team discovered their vehicle could not run when carrying the heaviest cargo weight.

“It was pretty scary,” says teammate Kieran Garland. “The vehicle’s bearings had way more friction on them than we thought; it just wouldn’t go at all. It was a stressful couple days.”

Fortunately, after much troubleshooting, the team developed a novel solution.“On a whim, we decided to switch the voltage and turn the entire vehicle around,” Garland says. To their great amazement, the turned-around version ended up running even better than the first.