This year’s annual robot design competition was not only a milestone as the event reached its 30th year, but it was also the first competition to be hosted online.
The event, which is usually held in person, is the much-anticipated finale of Dalhousie engineering students’ ECED 3901 course. Engineering Professor Vincent Sieben acted quickly to pivot the in-person curriculum and robot competition to a digital format to keep staff safe and student experience and engagement high while learning remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.
When speaking about the three to four weeks it took to re-jig the course to fit distanced learning, Dr. Sieben said, “This was a monumental feat that I couldn’t do without my fellow colleagues, and I couldn’t have asked for a better group of people to carry this course across the finish line.”
Bringing this competition to a virtual format is a great example of how faculty and staff have worked to adapt teaching and learning opportunities to the changed environment resulting from a global pandemic.
All the way to Mars
The 113 students in the course, spanning across Canada, China and even the Bahamas came together to form 37 teams. They worked hard and collaborated digitally over the semester to get their robots ready to compete in the autonomous robot challenge simulating farming on Mars.
Dr. Sieben enjoyed the unique opportunities and challenges to run labs out of student’s homes.
The design competition features automated robots, coded by undergraduate electrical and computer engineering students. Students coded their robots to cover an area, like mowing the lawn, while avoiding placed obstacles in the form of Martians. This had to be done with autonomous movement, meaning that all the coding happened before the event and the robots had to be capable of avoiding unknown, and unpredictable obstacles.
Using Raspberry Pi kits allowed students to simulate the robot code in their homes utilizing Gazebo and the Robot Operating System (ROS). The students then attempted their simulated code on real robots throughout the term with progressively more difficult tasks leading up to the final competition. This code was then provided to the professor and lab staff and the students told the staff what they wanted done.
Dr. Sieben says, “We were the hands acting on behalf of the students' brains.”
Having a blast
The day of the event, the students took turns competing to see who would come out on top. Not only were the students and professors watching the robot design competition, but anyone could join the livestream of the event. Throughout the day family, friends, and robot enthusiasts were able to pop in and out of the livestream.
Want to get a taste of the competition for yourself? You can watch a video of snippets from the labs and competition below.
A record number of successful attempts were set in this 30th year of the competition, with 31 out of the 37 teams completing the obstacle course.
The winning robot design went to Team 4 with students, Gabriel Burchat, Brad Jones, and Yang Lu as the minds behind BYGbot, which was named using the initials of the teammates.
Gabriel Burchat weighed in on his experience, saying, “My team and I had a blast doing this term project. It wasn’t the hands-on nature that we heard so much about because of the quarantine, so we didn’t know what to expect. The course design was extraordinary. I wouldn't have wanted to do this semester any other way. Dr. Sieben made us excited for the project in a way that reinvigorated our enthusiasm for the semester.”
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