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Team effort conquers low power

IEEE hardware team (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

Students on the IEEE hardware teawm built a solar-powered robot for the 2010 SoutheastCon competition Back row from left: Fitwi Hailegiorgis, Philip Caspers, Kurt Brendley, Abdullah Asiri, Alex Goodman, Jacob Stultz, Nick Dodson, and Alfred Gonzales. Front: Michael Francis, Kevin Green, Josh Avant, Chris Arnold, and Bobby Browen.

Competitions aren’t just about building and testing systems, as Kevin Green (CPE ’10), captain of Virginia Tech’s IEEE hardware contest team, and his teammates have learned. Good management and advance work can be as important as overcoming technical challenges and developing working hardware and software.

The team displays their PV array (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

The team displays their PV array

For the 2010 IEEE SoutheastCon hardware contest, teams built a photovoltaic-powered vehicle that would navigate an obstacle course without the help of a human controller. To add to the challenge, no batteries were allowed, only capacitors, and the only power sources were four 250W Halogen work lamps. The vehicles could stand still and charge under the lights, but the competition was timed to ensure that the vehicles were always pressured to move forward and operate on very low power.

“Most of the robots just sat there without moving. It was a standoff – whoever could move first would win.”

The autonomous vehicles attempt to go under or over a height obstacle, through a width obstacle, and over a ramp. The Virginia Tech team found the ramp especially difficult, because of the vehicle’s low power and the ramp’s slick surface.

The team (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

The team struggled with various options, including a set of very sticky wheels, which worked when perfectly clean but constantly picked up dirt from the artificial turf of the track. “We tried wiping down the ramp and cleaning the Astroturf, but no matter what we do, the wheels collect so much dirt that they slip,” Green said. The team eventually opted for treads, which are a big energy drain.

For power, the team started with paper thin, inexpensive PV panels that crumbled with the slightest pressure. For a team that is always disassembling, reassembling, or transporting their device, these panels were not a viable option.

The students found sturdier panels, but at a high cost of $500. With a contribution from defense contractor Artis, they were able to purchase and install 160 of the small square solar panels on their vehicle.

A week before competition, the team had the power and locomotion systems operating, as well as working software. This was unusual for a project that typically hasn’t had a working vehicle until days or even hours before competition. Green attributed this success to a larger team than normal and several decisions made early in the process.

The team at work (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

After several years of ultra-small teams, this year’s team was 18 strong, including some mechanical engineering students. The students were able to break into several functional groups: hardware and chassis, and software. Each group had strong team leaders, which Green said made his job as captain much easier.

“This has been really great,” he said. “These guys have been great to work with. They’ve taken over a lot of the work, which lets me focus on the funding, management, and other aspects of the contest like paperwork or buying pizza for everybody when they have to stay late. I don’t know how previous captains did it without this structure.”

While the hardware team struggled with power and chassis issues, the software team was busy developing code and “war gaming among themselves.” When the chassis was ready, the software “just kind of worked,” Green said. “In the past, we’d have the chassis built, but zero software. This time, we had written tons of software.”

They have even had time to develop software techniques to improve processing of feedback and system integration. “Now if something goes wrong, it’s a lot easier for us to tell whether it was a minor technical glitch or a major problem with the system,” explained Green.

Board with logo (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

So, how did the robot perform at competition? The team had been very hopeful and when they got to the competition in March, they found they were the only team to use treads and their vehicle was the most sophisticated looking. “We looked like a robot, whereas other teams looked like a motor with solar panels.”

Then, a half hour before competition, disaster struck. “The robot was having electrical problems and we discovered that a wireless radio module was dead. We had used that module all year to debug and send back telemetry information. It turns out this awesome module had shorted and fried one of our power regulators.” They were in the first heat and had to forfeit while scrambling for a replacement part.

Lesson learned: redundancy is critical.

Team members examine a board (Photograph by Christina O'Connor)

The robot was partially operational for the second heat, when the team found out that the competition power lights were different from the practice room. “Most of the robots — including ours — just sat there without moving. It was a standoff — whoever could move first would win,” Green said.

“Because we were robotic, we could reprogram our vehicle for the third heat, when other teams had to rewire theirs.” Lesson learned: advance preparation was a good thing.

The robot moved for the final heat and gained one point. “We were off zero, which put us in the middle of the 50 teams, but we were far from placing. One team got 30 point and the rest just sat. It was a slaughter!”
Lesson learned: “It was a good experience. We learned a lot about ourselves.”

Back in Blacksburg, the students are repairing and fixing up the robot as a departmental demonstration unit. The team is sponsored each year by Norfolk Southern and was advised this year by Jaime De La Ree.