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  • Education: Robots Set Students’ Sights on Engineering

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Hank Hogan,

There’s no question in Rachel Moore’s mind what played a role in her deciding on an electrical engineering, or EE, degree. She attributes it to a robotics competition hosted by the nonprofit organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) of Manchester, N.H. “My involvement in FIRST was a huge factor for me choosing to pursue a degree in EE,” she said.

Now a graduate student at Texas Tech University in Lubbock, Moore mentors younger students, guiding them during the FIRST Robotics Competition as they try to build a robot that can perform a specific task. Aimed at high school students, the competition involves robots tackling different problems, which vary from year to year.


Robots compete and students learn, using technology, including vision sensors. Courtesy of Adriana M. Groisman.

The robots, which operate both autonomously and under remote guidance from a student, often require optical sensors. For example, Moore said that the plan this year is to use a simple webcam to measure relative field location, distance traveled and robot rotation.

The tasks are designed specifically to induce students to consider a scientific or technical career. The fact that Moore cites the competition as the key factor in her choice of a major is anecdotal proof that it’s working. Several studies have shown the competition’s positive effect on a career choice.

But technology, like time and tide, waits for no one. So the competition this year is rolling out a new platform. Among other things, the robot control system will have new vision abilities. “It has a full-color camera with live video capabilities,” said Chris Jennings, engineering project manager.

The software that comes with the kit can do pattern matching and character recognition. Thus, the robots can look for a particular shape, which could be important in a given game. That’s something the previous generation of robots couldn’t do.

Jennings noted that teams have only six weeks from when they get the kits to when the game is announced to design, build and test a robot that can solve the problem. The teams consist of 20 to 50 people. Some handle the technical chores, while the rest deal with other aspects of the game. Because the events involve both competition and cooperation, there’s a need for alliance building and strategy formation.

The increased optical capabilities are partly due to a vision processor from Austin, Texas-based National Instruments. Vision product marketing engineer Matt Slaughter noted that groups can get the complete set of algorithms for the processor, allowing them to do the full image filtering, blob analysis and other sophisticated operations.

As for the future of competitions that inspire students to become scientists, one possibility can be found in a concept being investigated by Alfred Wicks, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Virginia Polytechnic and State University, or Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg. Wicks was the faculty adviser for a group of students that took part in the DARPA Urban Challenge, in which autonomous cars had to navigate city streets full of other moving cars. The Virginia Tech team took third place, and the competition could provide a blueprint for what Wicks envisions happening someday.

“One of the things that some faculty members and I are working on is to create a competitive program modeled off our football team,” he said.

This would feature regular competitions between teams of students, with scholarships and even TV broadcasts possible. Optical sensors would likely play a part. The idea would be to give students what they need to move ahead academically and also to be creative, Wicks said.

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