Robots to the rescue

Engineering students prepare for yearly competition

- July 14, 2011

Student Kathleen Svendsen works away on her rescue robot
Student Kathleen Svendsen works away on her rescue robot

There’s been an explosion at a local manufacturing plant that’s toppled over walls and collapsed portions of the roof. The fire department extinguished the fires and the rescue workers were able to get all but one employee out before the roof collapsed. The building’s been deemed unsafe and the rescue workers are scrambling to find a way to get the employee out of the building.

Your company, Rescue Robots Inc., received an emergency call requesting a robot that could enter the building and rescue the trapped employee.

‘Robot Rescue’ is the theme of this year’s 20th Annual Electrical and Computer Engineering Design Competition. Students are asked to design the sensors and controllers that power the robot through the obstacle course so that no human interaction is needed. In other words, the robot must operate autonomously during the competition and employ whatever strategy the student has designed without interference.

The annual competition is part of Design Methods II (ECED 3901), a mandatory third-year engineering course where part of the class is devoted to theory while the other part is designing and building the actual robot. Students begin working on their robots in May and have three months to design, build and test them, all while managing a full course load.

Getting there

Despite the emphasis on the competition, the actual marks given out are based more of the process rather than the delivery.

“How well they do in the competition is a very minor part of this whole thing. It’s how they get there that’s important,” explains Sara Stout-Grandy, electrical engineering professor who’s overseeing the competition. “That’s why the bulk of their mark comes from the progress reports.”

Students are required to complete two progress reports, a final report, and various assignments and labs detailing all aspects of the planning stages from design to delivery. They’re asked to record everything from project scheduling, brainstorming sessions and prototyping and submit it as a formal engineering progress report.

“We want students to treat these progress reports like a report for a customer in the real world. So theoretically, I’m the customer and they need to report to me with details on timeline, different stages the project went through, what was accomplished, problems that were encountered and how they were fixed.”


Dr. Stout-Grandy is a part-time instructor in the Faculty of Engineering and also works for GeoSprectrum Technologies Inc. The fact that she works in industry has become a huge asset to her students.

“Because I work in industry, I know what’s expected. Any student can pick up a textbook and learn the circuits. But to build them, test them, and get the circuit to work multiple times and under pressure is the real test. It requires integration, system testing and knowing how to join functions together and how to test them and backtrack when mistakes are made. It’s a huge skill, one that I use everyday in the workplace and this is what I want to convey to students.”

Dr. Stout-Grandy graduated from the Faculty of Engineering (formally TUNS) and was taught by Peter Gregson – the mastermind behind the robot competition. If fact, it was the  1996 incarnation of the robot competition that inspired Dr. Stout-Grandy to enroll in the electrical engineering program.  

“Looking back, Dr. Gregson was so ahead of the times in terms of this competition. It’s progressed quite a bit to keep up with industry standards but the focus on proper design approach and hands-on problem solving remains.”

Spirit of collaboration

Although professors are on-hand to answer questions and help work out ideas, students agree there’s no hand-holding in this competition.

“It’s like, ‘here’s a kit, here are the requirements, have fun.’ So at the end, we turn the robots on and hope for the best,” laughs electrical engineering student Kathleen Svendsen.

Some students are working in pairs while others opted to work solo. Either way, there’s usually always someone around to bounce ideas off of.

“The competitive aspect of this project is pretty mild,” explains Matt Duffy, third-year engineering student. “We’re all friends and we’re all here working in the labs for hours on end. We help each other out when we can.”

The strategies for each team vary. Some choose to focus on distance sensors and light sensors while others are building wall crawlers.

For Moteb Alsumiry, he’s decided to use a combination of distance sensors, light sensors and touch sensors, all while keeping in mind one important thing: motor control.

“We were told by former students that one important thing to keep in mind early on is motor control because sometimes the biggest challenge can be just getting off the starting block,” he explains.

The fictional manufacturing plant is represented by a surface that’s 28 feet long by 16 feet wide. The surface is made up of fixed walls, destructible walls, moving doors and several other obstacles that will remain a mystery until the competition is underway. At the far end of the surface, there is a flashing red light revealing where the trapped employee is.

The competition will be held of Wednesday, July 20 at the Sexton Gym at 1360 Barrington Street. The finals begin at 6:00 p.m. and go until the last fictional employee is rescued. 


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