By Ronald Hanaki
Tomorrow at 3 p.m., the ESU Undergraduate Student Robotics Competition will be held in Zimbar Gym.
Dubbed “The Great Race,” the annual event is sponsored by Enterprise Systems Partners, Inc., Sigma Xi, the Computer Science Department, the College of Arts & Sciences, and ESU’s Center for Research and Economic Development.
The robotics competition has been held since 2009 and is open to students from all majors.
Students are provided with Lego Mindstorms, which are programmable robot kits. However, it is within the rules for students to opt to use other programmable kits such as Raspberry Pi or Arduino over Lego Mindstorms.
Once properly programmed, these robots are then tasked with completing some kind of timed obstacle course that has been set up in the Zimbar Gym.
Dr. Robert Marmelstein from the Computer Science Department is the organizer and coordinator of the event.
“I am expecting three or four teams this year. The goal is for the students to solve a non-trivial problem and do a practical application of their computer science skills,” Marmelstein began.
There are a few competitive things that are available like the programming contest in the PACISE (Pennsylvania Association of Computer and Information Science Educators) conference, but this is something that we do every year and is specific to ESU,” Marmelstein said.
“Student participants have to know a high-level computer programming language like Java. If you want to build a robot that actually solves the problem, it requires a fair amount of work. It’s kind of like a one to two credit class for the amount of effort required.”
“Anything you do with robots is pretty hard. Real-time embedded problems are a different animal from most software projects in class,” continued Marmelstein.
In previous years, the event was held in the Hoeffner Science & Technology Center, but the location was moved to Zimbar last year.
“President Welsh thought that it [the competition] should have a higher profile, and we’ve been getting a lot of help from the Dean’s office,” Marmelstein said.
“Moving it to Zimbar gives more opportunity for people to attend and see what our students are doing,” added Associate Dean Jeffrey Weber.
In fact, the Pocono Record covered ESU’s robotics competition for the first time last year.
“The students put a heck of a lot of work into it. The College of Arts & Sciences is proud of what these students do, and we’re proud of the Computer Science Department. This is a way of promoting them and showcasing their work,” stated Weber.
“It’s really a fun opportunity for the students to collaborate. It gives students a better appreciation for how hard it is to write intelligent software, and I think it’s a good learning experience,” said Professor Christine Hofmeister, chair of the Computer Science Department.
Colin Burke, president of CSO (Computer Science Organization), is participating in the competition for the second year in a row.
“I like trying to challenge myself and applying my knowledge that I learned here,” Burke said.
“I feel that students should always be involved in finding things to challenge them. Regardless of how I do, I am trying my best,” Burke continued.
“There is a tactical advantage to being a second-year participant,” continued Burke. “With the NXT libraries, you can do arc and geolocation and Cartesian coordinate stuff.”
“Our robot is a line follower. It’s pretty complex, and everything we wrote was from scratch,” said Burke.
“I just hope to see a big turnout of people watching, and I hope everybody enjoys themselves,” said Burke.
Computer science and security dual-major Rudolf Geosits was part of the team that has won the competition for the last two years, and he has offered some friendly advice.
“I would recommend it [participating in the robotics competition] to those who are confident in computer science already.” said Geosits.
“Otherwise, wait until your sophomore year, or you might be a bit disappointed. At least have [Java] programming I and II classes,” continued Geosits.
“If you know a little about Linux systems, I would go with Raspberry Pi [over the programmable Lego NXT brick]. The main advantage to using Raspberry Pi is threading, which is very hard to do using the Lego NXT brick. But if you are kind of new to computer science, I would definitely use the NXT first. You would definitely be more productive with the NXT if you are a beginner in computer science,” explained Geosits.
“Start with what is the goal,” continued Geosits. “What is the most efficient and most effective way to go through the maze without messing up?”
“You don’t really understand how challenging it is until you test the robot in the physical world and realize that there are a lot more complications than you thought there would be” said Geosits.
“Environmental issues like sensor calibration misreadings or the level of the floor or various things like that affect performance,” continued Geosits. “You think your code is predictable, but it is not because you introduce so many other factors.”
“What I would suggest for beginners is rechargeable batteries,” added Geosits. “You will go through a lot of batteries, and it is well worth your money to buy a set of rechargeable batteries.”
“The last thing is to test a lot. Test and calibrate the sensors a lot. Test every case that you can. No slacking on the testing,” affirmed Geosits.
Participating in the competition can be rewarding and even spark a new interest.
“It gets you more interested in the low level stuff or the electronics by interfacing with the sensors and the board. You have to understand the electronics and the interface where hardware and software work. It gives you more hunger to understand how it all works,” professed Geosits.
Pizza and refreshments will be served following the competition.