Building Mr. Roboto: FDU engineering students compete in 2015 ASME Student Design Competition

Editor’s note: Five mechanical engineering technology students from Fairleigh Dickinson University’s Metropolitan Campus recently designed and built a robot capable of navigating an obstacle course to deliver rice and beans. Competing against teams from Drexel University, New Jersey Institute of Technology and more, the FDU team held its own at the 2015 ASME Student Design Competition in April. Team leader and senior Ed Constantine of Franklinville, N.J., writes about the experience:

By Ed Constantine

Towards the end of February, Professor Bernard Lefkowitz (associate professor of electrical and mechanical engineering) approached several mechanical engineering technology students about entering the 2015 American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Student Design Competition, myself included. The competition was set for April 18, which gave us a little over six weeks to research, design, order parts and construct the robot.

ASME comp group

The FDU student competitors present their robot at the 2015 American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) Student Design   Competition. (Photos and images courtesy of Ed Constantine)

The guidelines for the competition project — “Robots for Relief” — included the design and creation of a robotic drone capable of navigating an obstacle course to deliver a payload of rice and beans, and then returning to its place of origin.

We formed a team of five students: seniors Matthew Burdash, Jorge Tapia, Federica Alzate, junior John Rajski and myself, Ed Constantine. Each student was charged with a specific task in the creation of this robot. I designed the robot. Tapia and Alzate designed the payload delivery method. Burdash designed the control and power systems. Rajski assisted with manufacturing and mid-manufacturing design changes.

The design of the robot had to follow specific guidelines set forth by ASME, which included control and power guidelines, both the robot and control system fitting in a 25cm x 25 cm x 30 cm box, the robot being able to navigate an obstacle course, deliver an unsoiled payload, and return to the beginning of the course. The design of the robot was a hybrid of 3D printed parts reinforced by formed sheet steel and prefabricated parts.

Adopting concepts I found in researching military robots, the group agreed on my concept of a six-tracked robot with four sets of tracks capable of rotating 180 degrees up and down. These “swing tracks” would be necessary in lifting the robot to climb steps and to help it over obstacles. The swing tracks also enabled the robot to fold itself in half for storage within the box, which allowed us to have a robot twice as big as most of the competing robots. I started the design process during spring break. Using AutoCAD 2013, I spent about 40 to 60 hours developing 2D and 3D models of the concept.

ASME design 1

Digital schematics of the FDU team's robot. The models were made using AutoCAD.

ASME design 3

“I decided to use a rack and pinion system to deliver the payload into the final target. We were thinking of having the robot stand on its swing tracks and extend the payload with an extending armature,” says Tapia, of Guayaquil, Ecuador. “This process would allow us to deliver the load without climbing the last step, giving us more time to make another trip or to increase our load capacity. But, three days before the deadline, we discovered that in an internet Q&A session, the judges stated the robot would be required to be on top of the last step to deliver its payload. I opened the master drawings to start making changes on the design, trying to find a way that will meet our goal and our design limits for the robot. I finally suggested that our only simple solution was to make a hole through the middle of our robot and deliver the load by dropping it.”

Construction of the robot took nearly a week, from Saturday, April 11 to Friday, April 17. Each member of the team devoted every spare moment they had, meeting daily at 10 a.m. and each typically working six to 10 hours a day. We estimate that our group contributed around 300 hours to the production of the robot. We completed the robot about 14 hours before the competition start time.

The competition was held at Temple University in Philadelphia, Pa., on April 18. Seventeen schools competed, with 19 robots entered.

The Fairleigh Dickinson University robot was the second to attempt the obstacle course, but the first terrestrial vehicle to attempt it (the first contestant was a helicopter and it was disqualified during its trial).

Once our robot was placed in the staging area, we had one minute of setup time. We then had three minutes to load the rice and beans, navigate the obstacle course, deliver the payload and return.

Unfortunately, our design did not account for the addition of unexpected obstacles on the first portion of the course, where our robot got stuck (these unexpected obstacles were not included in the parameters set forth by ASME). But, much to everyone's surprise, our robot managed to break free of the first obstacle. Unfortunately in doing so we lost the swinging action of the rear tracks, our robot responding much like a dog with a broken hip. After clearing the first obstacle (the ramp), we entered the second obstacle (a pool of water), and managed to get halfway into the third obstacle (a sand pit). Due to the loss of the lifting action in the rear tracks, we were unable to completely extricate ourselves from the water pool.

Spirits were low within our group, but we stayed for the rest of the competition. Competing immediately after us was New Jersey Institute of Technology, which entered two robots. Much to our surprise, NJIT's robots either didn't make it to the staging area or couldn't get out of the staging area. Our spirits started to lift.

The remainder of the competition continued in much the same fashion, with 19 robots competing and not one of them attaining a score. As it turns out, our robot was not the only machine hindered by the additional obstacles. In terms of distance, FDU managed to defeat half the field. Several teams couldn't navigate past the first obstacle (ramp with simulated debris). A few more teams couldn't get past the water pool. Only eight teams, including FDU, made it at least partway out of the water and into the third obstacle (sand pit). Only four teams managed to get to the final step in the obstacle course, but all failed to deliver their payload.

We are proud to say that we put Fairleigh Dickinson University on the map with this competition. We were the talk of the competition due to the sheer size of our robot, with judges even coming up to our table prior to inspection doubting that it met the guidelines. As we were the first ground robot to attempt the course, we were the most watched. And because the audience knew that we “broke our hip” mid-competition, we were the most cheered team when we continued on and almost pulled ourselves completely out of the water pool and into the sand pit.

Our team got further than half the field, which was highly unexpected considering the time constraints we were under. In comparison, NJIT began work on their robots in the fall 2014 semester.

If we consider the competition in terms of distance, FDU managed to “defeat” half the field. Most notable of these were the defeat of one robot from Drexel University (which entered two robots), two robots from NJIT, one from Rochester Institute of Technology and one from Tufts University.

“By the end of our robot build, I realized that not only have we all accomplished a seemingly impossible task in the time frame we had, but our team became a close-knit band of brothers,” says Rajski, of Totowa, N.J. “There were times of joyful laughter together, but that was always followed with dedicated hard work, which would sometimes keep us occupied at school until after midnight. Even though the competition is over now, our team still feels the need to get together and perfect our creation. This was by far one of the most valuable experiences Fairleigh Dickinson University was able to offer me, and I am extremely satisfied that we took the plunge together and competed!” 

If it weren't for the skills and lessons we learned during our time at Fairleigh Dickinson University, we would not have been able to accomplish all of these nearly impossible tasks!

“I was really impressed when the students demonstrated the vehicle. It took creativity, design and development skills, coupled with teamwork, perseverance, and hard work, to come up with such an innovative design,” says Alfredo Tan, professor of electrical engineering and director of Gildart Haase School of Computer Sciences and Engineering. “Seeing their enthusiasm makes me wish I were a student again!”