Sports teams aren’t the only groups with mascots. The Rutgers University IEEE Student Branch also has one—but it’s not the usual big, furry character. It’s a robot.
The branch at Rutgers, in New Brunswick, N.J., has spent the past two years developing and fine-tuning Navi [shown above], a 90-kilogram, fully autonomous robot.
The Rutgers students have not only entered Navi in an international robotics challenge, but they also use it as an outreach tool to get youngsters interested in engineering and to attract new student members.
Robotics is big at the Rutgers branch. “We decided to focus on robots because our engineering classes are not very hands-on; we don’t put many things together or work in teams,” says IEEE Student Member Elie Rosen, the branch president. “With robotics, we’re able to explore research topics that many of us won’t get to do until our senior year.”
Navi was developed to compete in the Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition, held annually in Rochester, Mich. The 2012 contest in June saw students from more than 40 universities around the world design and build robots to navigate an obstacle course. Prizes were awarded for overall design, navigation ability, autonomous control, and more.
To move autonomously, Navi relies on GPS, a laser range finder, a compass, two line-sensing cameras, and an onboard computer that analyzes the sensor data to determine a safe path. The students received help from more than 20 sponsorships, including from Allied Vision Technologies, the Rutgers research group Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences Institute, and the IEEE Princeton Central Jersey Section—totaling about US $25 000.
The Rutgers branch placed second in the 2012 competition and third in 2011, both in the overall design category. Although the students won’t compete in this year’s contest, they are tinkering with the robot to get it ready for the 2014 event by improving its path-planning algorithms and adding higher-performance motors. The students also show off the robot at campus events, including career fairs, campus tours, and Rutgers Day. The robot has been great for attracting new student members, according to Rosen. “We’ve grown by more than 30 members this school year alone,” he says.
The student branch also built another robot, the Raritan Rat, to compete in an IEEE Micromouse competition. This event, organized by IEEE regions, has students build tiny electromechanical robots that rely on mapping technology to navigate autonomously to reach a target in a maze. The Rat didn’t make it to the competition, “but it did bring a larger awareness of the projects the student branch works on,” Rosen says.
OUTREACH AND TRAINING
But it’s not all about competition for these budding engineers. They also devote time to teaching preuniversity and university students about robotics. Branch members recently volunteered for the 4-H Engineering and Technology Program, which teaches young students about engineering. As part of the program, local students in grades 4 to 8 visit the Rutgers student branch, and the members explain basic robotics and show them how to build small robots using the Lego Mindstorm set.
“The kids really enjoy the technology, and they always ask difficult questions,” Rosen says. “It’s fun working with them.”
And in February, the group held a workshop that taught Rutgers engineering students how to build a robot of their own from a kit that uses sensors to follow a line of electrical tape placed along the ground.
“We developed the kit on our own to introduce basic soldering and programming skills,” Rosen explains. The kit includes five infrared sensors and a motor drive chip. “By the end of the workshop, students leave with a valuable experience that we hope they will use down the road.”
TALKS AND WORKSHOPS
Another popular student branch event was a panel discussion held in October that had representatives of the global investment banking and securities firm Goldman Sachs talk about what it’s like to work as an engineer in the investment industry. About 60 students attended, many even applying afterward for positions at the company, according to Rosen.
The branch also organizes other events, including technical workshops on Linux software and robot operating systems.
Rosen’s time as the Rutgers branch president has inspired him, he says, to find other ways to volunteer for IEEE once he graduates in May with a bachelor’s in electrical and computer engineering: “I couldn’t be happier with my experience. I’ve met IEEE members from around the country, and even became friends with one in Australia. I’m excited to continue my membership after I graduate, and look forward to spending free time attending IEEE conferences and volunteering for the organization.”