Robotics winners

A team of 16 West Virginia University engineering students proved this week that a robot can live up to its name.

The WVU robot Cataglyphis—named after a desert ant known for its ability to journey across great distances and reliably return home—traveled the distance to the campus of Worcester Polytechnic Institute for the fourth annual Sample Return Robot Challenge as part of NASA’s Centennial Challenges held June 8-12.

It will return home to Morgantown this weekend with the first level two victory in the competition’s four-year history and a $100,000 award for its performance, thanks to its successful retrieval of the coveted “Red Rock” sample worth a higher point value and a six-figure check.

That’s quite a week for a robot.

It was also a milestone week for Cataglyphis’s team of WVU Benjamin M. Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources student designers who worked tirelessly for 18 months to prepare their robot extraordinaire to autonomously seek out samples on a 20-acre field over a two-hour period and return them to a designated point.

This is the second year that WVU has proven its talents in the robotics field during the competition. WVU was the first team to successfully complete level one during their Challenge debut in 2014, which qualified them to return and compete at level two this year—where they secured another first when they successfully completed level two.

“Last year, we learned how to put this together and learned what tools were essential to successfully build the robot. This year, we built those tools and used them in the most efficient manner,” said team member Jared Strader, a graduate student in mechanical and aerospace engineering from Clarksburg.

“We knew the difficulty level was going to increase significantly this year, so it is the best feeling for us to go out there and accomplish what we set out to do,” said Strader. “We worked for nearly 100 hours per week in the time frame between finals and the competition. It’s hard to describe how rewarding it is to see these results today.”

According to Monsi Roman, rising program director of the NASA Centennial Challenges, the results achieved by WVU are significant and can only be accomplished by teams with a hybrid of strengths.

“It’s the first time we’ve had a level two winner in this competition and had the opportunity to award a team with this kind of prize money,” said Roman. “It is not an easy task; it is certainly a significant win.”

Roman said as the level two victors, WVU achieved the highest score of any 2015 Sample Return Robot Challenge team.

While no other collegiate teams qualified to compete in the level two Challenge, MIT, RPI and Oregon State University all competed in the level one Challenge.

“WVU is walking away with a win because they combined the smarts from the software, mechanical and electrical parts of their system,” said Roman. “But most importantly, they won because they worked collaboratively and had a very strong project management team to guide them.”

The leader of that project management team was Yu Gu, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering. Team members credit Gu’s leadership for guiding their success.

“Gu is a great mentor; he thinks about everything,” said team member Scott Harper, a senior mechanical engineering major from Spencer. “Everything has a plan. He has a checklist for his checklists. He always points us in the right direction to allow us to be as successful as possible.”

Gu is the portrait of humility when told of his students’ praise.

“I just mentored them,” said Gu. “They did all the hard work and brought home the victory. They were the ones who programmed, researched and thought all this through. It’s exciting to see it pay off for them.”

Gu’s leadership was complemented by his Statler College of Engineering and Mineral Resources colleagues Jason Gross, Marvin Cheng and Powsiri Klinkakhorn, all of whom provided guidance and consultation to the team in the programming and design of the robot.

They hope to use the prize money as seed funds for scholarships for engineering students to perpetuate the program.

The hard work of the team and their faculty advisors certainly hasn’t gone unnoticed by Gene Cilento, Glen H. Hiner Dean of the Statler College.

“From the minute they returned home from last year’s competition, the team from WVU has been working incredibly hard to prepare their robot for this competition,” said Cilento. “I’m proud of the effort they put forward and how well they performed in this year’s competition. They have made the Statler College and WVU a recognized name nationally in the field of robotics.”

WVU will certainly be a name that is recognized by the judges for years to come.

“It takes a team who can build a mature mechanical system that allows them to focus on the visual and navigational challenges of the robot to be successful in this competition, and WVU executed those elements well,” said Ken Stafford, director of the Robotics Resource Center at WPI and competition judge.

“I love watching this team because they have outstanding camaraderie, fantastic leadership in Dr. Gu and demonstrate great confidence in their algorithm,” said Stafford. “They are an amazing group of students.”

NASA Centennial Challenges were initiated in 2005 to engage the public in the process of advanced technology development. The program offers incentive prizes to generate revolutionary solutions to problems of interest to NASA and the nation. Competitors are not supported by government funding and awards are only made to successful teams when the challenges are met.