My Team Won the Robot Competition

This "news" is over two months old, simply because I had other more interesting things to write about first. Not that I am out of ideas: I have at least three more ideas lined up at the moment on top of several half-written entries that may never see the light of day. I just want to get it out of the way.

Robot Competition 2007

In December we held the robot competition, pitting against each other the robots that we spent the semester building. It was a double-elimination bracket with five teams. Teams competed by arranging the maze (within the rules) and deciding the initial position for their opponents. The robots do not get to know about the maze or where they are starting; they must figure this out on their own by exploring the maze.

To recap, there was an 8'x8' game area containing a 4'x8' maze of 1-square-foot cells. On the floor of the game area was a grid of white lines on black, where the white lines were about 7-inches apart. The robot started at an unknown position and orientation in the maze, which was also set up with a configuration unknown to the robot. In the non-maze open area, three small wooden blocks were placed at the intersection of white lines, with a steel washer attached to the top of each block.

In short, the robot had to move all three blocks to the repository, a pre-programmed position in the maze.

At the end of the semester, our team's robot was the only one that could successfully complete this task. The other teams needed to play in a degraded mode: known maze configuration, known starting position, known block positions. The loser bracket played this degraded version of the game. Because of this, our team was able to sweep the tournament with a perfect run. All the robot had to do was successfully run the full game. The competition, not being able to do this, automatically lost.

The robots were mostly the same, except for one team who had a robot with 4 multi-direction wheels. Every other team made a "scooter bot" type of robot: two powered wheels (with casters for balance) and chassis with three levels. The first real separation of design was when it came to picking up blocks. Each team initially had a different idea. One team was going to build a pulley system to lift the blocks. Another was going to use sweeping arms to sweep in the block. Another was going to used a stationary magnet.

Our team went with a rotating wheel in front with magnets along the outside (see images below). Once a block was found, the robot would rotate a magnet over the block, then rotate the attached block out of the way. In the end, four of the five teams ended up using this design for their own robots (the last team stuck with the stationary magnet).

These pictures were taken about a month before the competition. The wiring job was still a bit sloppy and the front magnet wheel lacks tiny magnets attached to the outside. Other than that, this is what our final robot looked like. In that last month, we attached the magnets, cleaned up the wiring, and made a whole bunch of code improvements making the robot more robust.

I will now attempt to describe some of the things you see in these images.

On the bottom of the robot you can see two casters for balancing the robot (big clunky things). You can see an IR sensor, which is pointing at the blue surface attached to the other side of the robot. This was the block detection sensor, a home-made break-beam sensor. And finally, you can see three LED lights on top of a long circuit board. This is a line tracker, with three sensors that can see the white grid on the bottom of the game board. The line tracker is how the robot navigated the open area of the board. It went back-and-forth looking for blocks, using the line tracker to stay on the line.

Also attached to this bottom layer are the powered wheels, with blue rubbers for traction, and their wheel encoders. There are spokes on the inside of the wheels (encoder disks), and the wheel encoders send a signal to the micro-controller each time it sees a spoke. The software counts the number of spokes that passed, allowing the robot to keep track of how far that wheel has turned. This information is combined with IR distance sensors to give it a very accurate idea of its position.

On top of the bottom black layer, you can see four distance IR sensors for tracking walls in the maze. They checked to make sure the robot was going straight (that's why there are two on each side), as well as map out the maze as it travels long. Hanging down from the bottom of the red layer is another IR sensor facing forward, looking at walls in front of the robot. Mounted on the front is the block retrieval device (lacking magnets at this point).

On top of the red layer are two (empty) battery packs, which holds 9 AA rechargeable NiMH batteries. This actually makes two separate power systems: a 4-pack for motors and a 5-pack for logic (micro-controller et al). In the circuit, the motors, containing coils of wire, behave like inductors, which could cause harmful voltage spikes to the logic. Separate power systems help prevent damage.

On top is the micro-controller and all of the important connections. The vertical board contains the voltage regulator and "power strip" where all of the sensors are attached. It also contains the start button, which was connected to an interrupt in the micro-controller. The micro-controller had its own restart button, but once the system started up, initialized, and self-calibrated, it waited for a signal from the start button to get things going.

I was about to post this when I was reminded by my fiancee that she took pictures at the end-of-semester presentation, after the competition. Included are some images of the robot after it was completely finished. Yes, that is a little face fastened to the front.

If you are ever at Penn State and are visiting the IST building, you can see the robot. Because the robot won the competition, it is on display and will be for years to come. You can recognize it by its face.

I have made the final robot code available here: I was the software guy, handling pretty much all the code, so everything here, except interupt_document.c was written by me. It's probably not very useful as code, except for reading and learning how our robot worked. There are a few neat hacks in there, though, which I may discuss as posts here. It's not noted in the code itself, nor in the zip file, but I'll make this available under my favorite 2-clause BSD license.

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null program

Chris Wellons