Jerry Sanders Creative Design Competition

Background

The Jerry Sanders robotics competition is an annual tradition taking place at the University of Illinois during Engineering Open House. For the 2002 competition, we formed a team consisting of myself, two Electrical and Computer Engineers, and an Aerospace Engineer.

The challenge was to compete with other robots to pick up Bocce and Bowling balls from 2-3 inch tall PVC pedestals, and return them to a "home-base" area. Our design was pretty simple - a big rectangular robot with a pulley-based center chamber. Essentially, there were two channels which could be slid under the ball. As the chamber was lifted, the ball would get caught in the groove of the channel, and roll down.

In the case of the Bocce balls, there was an opening in the back which lead to a holding tank of sorts. We had capacity to get at least half of the balls, which would be a major accomplishment considering. The bowling ball would be held in the back of the lifting chamber itself. Once it hit the back, it would effectively lock in place. This would allow us the chance to place the bowling ball on the pedestal in the home area for double points.

My role

Besides being the main welder for the project (a skill that I picked up solely for the project), and being involved in the actual design, I was also responsible for writing the software to control the robot. In order to keep things simple, we had decided to use a pair of laptops - one on the robot connected to the control circuit, and one with us to act as a controller.

Unfortunately, until the night before the competition, we didn't have a working robot; as a result, I had devoted most of my effort to helping try to get things working, rather than writing the control system. In the end, I wound up writing a simple control system which ran over the wireless network and controlled the robot.

The results

Unfortunately, with no mechanical engineering types on our team, our design was plagued with drive issues. Upon going over a small drop in the first round, the axles bent upward, which in turn jammed them, in turn burning out the motors. We were able to repair this for the most part, but we only had one spare drive motor. Faced with being required to be in the second round to receive reimbursement for part of our expenses, we replaced one of the motors, and spent the entire round spinning in circles, because that was all we could really do.

Key learnings