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Robots take over Cleveland

UNI robotics team takes creation to national conference

Published: Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Updated: Thursday, November 10, 2011 11:11


ERIC CLAUSEN/Northern Iowan

The ATMAE UNI Student Chapter, left to right: Sean Quarles, Peter Dekluyver (secretary), Rick Ruport (vice president), Jeff Rick (treasurer), Jeremy Ganfield (president) and Matt Wason.


ERIC CLAUSEN/Northern Iowan

Hidden in a lab in the Industrial Technology Building at the University of Northern Iowa, a small, stuffed TC sits strapped into a robot, ready to rock the 2011 Annual Association of Technology, Management and Applied Engineering Conference with his ping-pong ball retrieving and sorting skills.

The UNI Robotics Team is in Cleveland, Ohio, Nov. 9 through 12 to participate in the conference with teams from across the nation. In the past, UNI has taken home first place for electrical methodology.

Each year, teams create a robot to complete a task set by the ATMAE. This year, the task is to design a robot that can gather 36 ping-pong balls from a table set in the middle of a room, separate them by color and distribute them to goals based on their color within five minutes. The robot can be controlled via remote control until it reaches a 10-foot circle encompassing the table, at which point it must be switched to autonomous and run off of computer programming to complete the task.

"There's a big difference between remote control and autonomous," elaborated Jeremy Ganfield, president of the robotics team and a junior electrical engineering technology major. "The autonomous feature is where it puts it basically in another level to where it's a challenge. The entire process of retrieval — once you approach the table where the ping-pong balls are stored —it's all autonomous."

Team secretary Peter DeKluyver, a sophomore electrical engineering technology major, agrees.

"It's a robot, not a remote control car," DeKluyver said.

This year, the team named their robot P-CAT, which stands for Panther Collect Analyze and Transfer. Ganfield said the team chose this name because it relates the robot to UNI and describes the robot's functionality.

There are many ways a robot could go about retrieving the balls, but the UNI Robotics Team has developed what they believe to be the fastest method. To collect the balls, a U-shaped bar with a tarp stretched across it lowers itself onto the table. The robot then uses pneumatics to push air through holes in the curved part of the bar, thus pushing all the ping-pong balls into a sort of funnel where they wait to be sorted by color with a special sensor into separate tubes. When all of the balls are sorted, the robot can then distribute them to their specific goals.

"Other teams are going to try to sweep them, maybe, or suck them up like one at a time. Ours is way faster. We only have like three seconds of air, and then we have all the balls," Ganfield said.

At about two seconds per ball, the team estimates that it will take P-CAT 112 seconds to sort all of the balls. If another team is able to complete the task this efficiently, the team with the fastest robot will get more points for the task. Points are also awarded for the technical report and graphics on the team's robot and poster.

To get their robot to this state of speed, the UNI team went through some trial and error. According to Rick Ruport, the team's vice president and senior technology management major, they changed the design eight times "in a major way" and changed the tubes three times.

"Some of the solutions you may see towards creating a robot — some of it's pure engineering, and you follow it exactly with what you designed," Ganfield said, "and other things is just fumbling around trying to find exactly what works, and through hard knocks you usually find the best solution. Sometimes it's simple (and) sometimes it's not."

Along with the competition, participants can attend lectures by guest speakers and try out cutting-edge technology at the conference. During the judging, it's possible for employers to look for potential employees.

"It's really what you make of it," Ganfield said.

The Robotics Team would like to give a special thank you to the university faculty, the Intercollegiate Academics Travel Fund, Northern Iowa Student Government and University Book and Supply for all of their help.

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