Students Reinvent Micromouse Competition

Student branches race robotic rodents at the first California Micromouse Competition

27 July 2011

For many years, IEEE student members around the world have competed at IEEE regional meetings to see whose mouse can make its way around a maze the fastest. These are engineering students we're talking about, so the mice aren't the whiskered cheese-eating types. They're tiny electromechanical robots that use sensors and mapping technology to navigate autonomously to reach a target.

The annual IEEE Micromouse competitions draw participants from nearby universities. Because some IEEE regions are so large, several contests are held for geographic areas within a region. Unfortunately, that sometimes results in less than a handful of contestants—which doesn't make for an exciting contest. To boost the excitement quotient, a group of student members at the University of California at San Diego decided to organize their own micromouse event, which was held in May.

Previously, UCSD would compete as part of the IEEE Region 6 Southwest Area meeting, which encompasses an area including San Diego, Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada. "But there were usually only two to five teams," says Minji Kim, chair of the UCSD student branch. "After learning that the University of California at Los Angeles also had low attendance during its area competition, we set out to fix the problem."

The result was the first California Micromouse Competition, held at UCSD on 21 May. The competition was a smash, attracting 13 teams from 8 schools, including UCLA, the University of Southern California, and the University of California at Santa Barbara. Out of the 13 micromice, 4 were able to solve the maze.

Kim and her fellow branch officers got help from Qualcomm, a San Diego company that sponsored the event. Qualcomm put up US $4000, the money going toward such things as prizes ($500 for first, $300 for second, and $200 for third), as well as $250 grants to the first 10 teams that signed up, to defray the cost of the parts. "It costs about $500 to build a micromouse," Kim notes, "so the $250 grants made the competition more affordable for the schools."

Once the branch received the Qualcomm funding last October, the students began promoting the contest. They contacted IEEE student branches throughout California and others that are part of the IEEE University Partnership Program. The IEEE UPP, which includes 17 schools, aims to build closer relationships with student branches and the librarians at some of the top engineering schools. The UPP provided T-shirts to each team as well as frames for the awards.

The IEEE San Diego Section helped by advertising the competition on its website. Qualcomm promoted the event to its employees, and many came to watch it in the university's Jacobs School of Engineering building. Three judges, from UCSD, UCLA, and the IEEE San Diego Section, oversaw the event.

The students built and programmed their micromice mainly using off-the-shelf electronics, but some teams also made custom circuit boards, Kim says. "The competing teams did not know the configuration of the maze, nor were they allowed to reprogram their robot after seeing it," she says. "The mice typically use a microcontroller based on ARM7 architecture or something like Arduino [an open-source prototyping platform]. Their sensors usually rely on infrared light reflecting off the walls."

First, a micromouse, placed at the outer edge of the maze, went through the maze to map it, store the map in its memory, and explore different routes to the center. It was then returned to the starting point, where a timed competition began in which the mouse had to find its way to a target at the center as quickly as possible. The winning team's micromouse reached the target in 39 seconds.

First and second places went to UCSD's Team Alex Forencich and the Vampires, respectively. Two teams from UCLA snagged third and fourth: In Green We Trust and Pikachu.

The fun contest had many benefits, Kim says: "By having students build everything from scratch, they got invaluable engineering experience. The amount of knowledge anyone gained on the project goes way beyond what could be learned in any single university course.

"It was also a great way to get IEEE student branches together to share ideas," she continued. "I loved seeing teams from other schools interacting and sharing their approaches to building the robots. And the teams learned from each other how to build even better robots for next year."

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