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Video by Cliff Hollis

ECU robot takes second place at national competition

Feb. 12, 2013

By Kathryn Kennedy
ECU News Services

An award-winning robot built by East Carolina University students may not look like R2D2 or WALL-E, but it’s no bucket of bolts.

Direct it to a table filled with colored ping pong balls and it will shovel them into its containing bin, sort them by color and wheel around to deposit them in predetermined locations. The robot does this automatically – without a human at the controls or giving commands.

ECU’s robot was so good at this task, it won second place in the Association of Technology, Management and Applied Engineering’s national competition last November in Nashville, Tenn.

“ECU was the first to go and we nailed it,” said Department of Technology Systems Chair T.J. Mohammed, who attended the competition.

ECU professor and ATMAE faculty advisor Amy Frank, left, and ECU ATMAE chapter president and robot competition team leader Philippe Schmider are shown with the award-winning robot. (Photo by Cliff Hollis)
The brains behind this machine belonged to eight students in the College of Technology and Computer Science. Between them, they had a lot of skills – familiarity with machinery and engineering, computer programming and technology systems. Still, team leader and ECU ATMAE chapter president Philippe Schmider said it was quite a challenge.

“The skills were there, we’d just never built a robot,” he said.

ATMAE faculty advisor Amy Frank said the project gives participating students the chance to apply the theories they’re learning in the classroom.

“Everything you plan, it never works out that way,” Schmider said, reflecting on the project. “You learn to adapt.”

The cost of powering a robot is one challenge, which they conquered by gathering donations, partnering with local industries and seeking student government support. They also built several of the parts rather than buying them pre-made, Schmider said.

The team began working last March after receiving specifications the robot had to meet from ATMAE. They produced sketches, purchased materials and began building. Plenty of modification happened along the way, and once construction concluded, work turned to programming the robot’s functions.

The project gathered steam heading into the fall semester. In the final months, team members were spending every weekend with the robot.

By competition day they were confident. Practice runs made them sure their robot could complete the task at hand.

“We were the underdogs, so we really enjoyed it,” Schmider said.

The team had a record to overcome.

“Last year (in 2011), the robot broke at the starting line,” he said. “ECU was not able to finish a robot the year prior to that. But the second place finish proved that we are, and will continue to be, highly competitive at the ATMAE conferences.”

Schmider, a senior, and five other team members participated in the challenge as part of an electromechanical systems integration class, taught by instructor Jimmy Linn. Those members were Grover Black, Ryan Burk, Will Garren, Joe Middleburg and Masato Nagakane.

Two students from different disciplines joined the team as volunteers from the larger ECU ATMAE chapter: senior and industrial technology major Wesley Shornock and Patrick Gookin, who graduated in December with a bachelor’s degree in computer science. That teamwork illustrates something that’s happening with increasing frequency within the College of Technology and Computer Science, Mohammed said.

“We’re trying to promote partnerships among the departments in everything we do,” he explained, adding that it reflects the kind of teamwork that happens daily in the workplace. “We want to encourage and nurture collaboration while (students) are here.”

Remaining team members and newcomers to the class and club are already gearing up for the 2013 competition, which will be held in New Orleans. Rumor has it, Frank said, their next robot might have to shoot hoops.

The ECU ATMAE robot competition team is pictured above with the winning robot.