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Student news - Teamwork brings robotics team first year of success

UW-Madison IEEE Robotics Team and the Paradroid robot

The UW-Madison IEEE Robotics team poses with Paradroid after a successful showing at the 2009 Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition. (large image)

The obstacle course was the greatest challenge the robot had ever faced. The pouring rain had damaged its laser range finder sensor — crucial for navigation — yet, it managed to push forward 200 feet before finally succumbing to the weather.

As the robot progressed, members of the UW-Madison IEEE Robotics Team followed along, cheering and screaming at the course edges, as if somewhere in its artificial intelligence the robot could appreciate the support.

When Paradroid finally came to a halt on the last day of the 2009 Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC), held this summer at Oakland University in Rochester, Michigan, the team was elated.

The robot had survived a significant portion of the course, which was an admirable end to the best competition showing in the team's history. The team won first place and $2,000 in the IGVC design contest, and the robot also placed in the top 10 in the navigation and autonomous challenges.

UW-Madison IEEE Robotics Team adjusting the Paradroid robot

Students from the UW-Madison IEEE Robotics team put the finishing touches on their latest robot, Paradroid. (large image)

“The design contest was a powerful moment for the entire team,” says Ken Leedle, an electrical and computer engineering student who served as the leader for the team's electrical group. “After the judges announced the final six teams and we were among them, we thought we'd get sixth — we couldn't believe we took first.”

Until the 2009 competition, the electrical and computer engineering, mechanical engineering and computer science students who compose the IEEE Robotics Team were IGVC underdogs. Each year since forming in 2002, the team struggled to qualify for the competition, and the 2008 IGVC was especially heartbreaking.

It had been Paradroid's debut. Leedle and mechanical engineering student and mechanical group leader Ted Steiner, along with the rest of the small team, had put in countless hours of work on the designed and built robot.

However, the software framework that controlled the artificial intelligence was still incomplete by June, and Paradroid couldn't move on its own. Despite their best efforts, neither Paradroid nor the team's other robot, ReWIRED, placed well in the 2008 competition.

The disappointment was acute for Leedle, who refused to think about robots for the rest of the summer. When the fall 2008 semester arrived, he attended the team's kick-off and found himself surrounded by more than 30 eager new students.

“There was all this energy and people were really excited, and I thought, we could actually do this,” says Leedle. “I decided to give it another shot.”

Under Leedle's and Steiner's leadership, the team rallied to integrate ReWIRED's software framework into Paradroid. Members also made numerous mechanical and electrical tweaks, including a new emergency stop system. Paradroid has a modular chassis with four-wheel drive and a suspension system. Various sensors and systems are embedded in the chassis, and the robot has unique omni-directional wheels that allow it to turn nearly effortlessly.

Paradroid made its first movements on the final day of Engineering EXPO 2009, a biennial event that draws local students to the College of Engineering campus to explore engineering student, faculty and industry exhibits. The robotics software group worked until almost 5 a.m. throughout the week of EXPO to make the framework functional, and Leedle was excited to see the robot navigating on its own around obstacles.

The year of effort paid off when all of Paradroid's mechanical, electrical and software systems functioned at IGVC, and the judges called Paradroid the most original and practical robot at the competition.

Leedle knows that without the undergraduate-run team's work, Paradroid never would have succeeded.

The future looks promising for Paradroid and the entire team, which was advised for the 2008-09 academic year by Mechanical Engineering Assistant Professor Michael Zinn. Leedle anticipates a high number of returning and new members for the 2009-10 team, and the group leaders plan to begin designing and building a new robot to accompany Paradroid at the next IGVC.

The team also plans to weatherproof Paradroid.

In addition to Leedle and Steiner, team members include Patrick Blesi, Emily Doberstein, Benjamin Frisch, Elise Gale, Wes Miller, Chad Rhyner, Nick Rolling, Sam Roth and Daniel Wright, among others.