June 2, 2011

Industry Helps Engineering Students Reanimate Robotic Mine Vehicles

In just 10 weeks, a group of University of Arizona engineering students took five crates of surplus hardware and two heavy-duty test vehicles, which didn't run, and mixed them with youthful enthusiasm, tenacity and many long hours to build a couple of robotic vehicles that recently drove themselves around UA's test mine.

This was no easy task, and some faculty predicted that the job was too big for the one-semester course: ENGR 450/550, autonomous vehicle systems. But they didn't factor in the can-do attitude of 23 undergraduate and graduate students, who were willing to put in late nights following classes and day jobs.

"It's amazing what happens when you say, "ËœHere's our goal, here are the resources, now go for it,'" said Sean Martinez, a systems engineering master's student and teaching assistant for the course. "This is what engineering is truly about. The enthusiasm was wonderful. The students just said, "ËœThis is what we want to do. Let's make it happen.'"

The autonomous vehicles, which replace human drivers with computer control, satellite navigation and robotic vision, were originally part of a research program at Freeport-McMoRan in Safford, Ariz.

"Their mine technology group has been pursuing autonomous vehicle programs, and they asked if we could use some of the equipment they finished testing in 2008," said Mary Poulton, director of the Lowell Institute for Mineral Resources, which worked with Freeport-McMoRan to set up the equipment donation to UA. IMR is collaborating with the Science Foundation of Arizona, the mining industry and Arizona's universities to build a global center of mining excellence.

Larry Head, who teaches ENGR 450/550; Jonathan Sprinkle of the electrical and computer engineering department; and Ricardo Sanfelice of the aerospace and mechanical engineering department are all conducting research related to autonomous vehicles, and they saw this as an unmissable opportunity to give students hands-on experience with the latest, bleeding-edge technology.

Tucson Embedded Systems stepped in and offered space to house the equipment and a place for students to work. Then it was just a matter of loading five 4x8x3-foot crates of hardware and two 7,500-pound vehicles onto a semi and transporting them to Tucson.

"The vehicles had been sitting for two years, and didn't start or run," Martinez said. "The communications equipment was inoperable. None of the control software was correct for what we were doing. The hardware was all there, but nothing worked." And some important things were missing, such as a complete wiring diagram for the vehicles.

To sort this out, the course combined students from electrical and computer engineering, systems and industrial engineering, and aerospace and mechanical engineering -- people who could do everything from auto mechanics to software engineering to control systems fabrication.

One of the impressive successes came from the group working on the vehicle's communications network, Martinez said. "You send a message into this box and it controls the vehicle through actuators. But we didn't know what the signals were, and we had no manual." So the group did some electronic sleuthing and reverse engineering to decode the signals the vehicle was using.

In another case, the students substituted brains for cash. "The vehicles don't use GPS for navigation," Martinez said. "They have a much more advanced system that is specific to the mine and cost half a million dollars to implement. But one of the students found a $150 system that he was able to build from a kit, and we were able to get about 90 percent of the capacity of that half-million-dollar system, which we obviously couldn't afford."

Staying focused on the main task -- ignoring the bells and whistles and just getting the vehicles together and driving autonomously -- was most important, Martinez said. "The next goal will be integrating a robot operating system and securing industry partnerships or research funding to fully exploit the research possibilities."

Poulton agrees. "When you have these kinds of test platforms, it's almost that the sky is the limit as far as what we can do with them now." Some mining companies already are using autonomous vehicles and the industry trend is in this direction, she added. Autonomous vehicles can work in remote areas or in underground mines where temperatures approach boiling and are too extreme for human workers.

Autonomous vehicles also are upgrading the skill set for mine workers. Instead of truck drivers, mining companies now need engineers who are familiar with autonomous systems. The two new autonomous vehicles built in ENGR 450/550 can give UA students that kind of experience.

"My goal was for this to be a one-time course," said Larry Head, department head in systems and industrial engineering. "Then we would use the vehicles for graduate student thesis projects and undergraduate senior design projects. But if enough students show an interest, we may build another course around these vehicles."

This semester's course gave students experience in working on a real-world engineering project, Martinez said. "We needed to figure out what we had to do to get the job done without regard to boundaries of a single engineering discipline. It was very much like what happens when an employer gives you a project."

It also was a project that never would have happened without close industry support, first from Freeport-McMoRan, which donated the hardware, and then Tucson Embedded Systems, which provided space and other resources. Autonomous Solutions Inc. also donated manuals for their software and the systems and industrial engineering department hired one of the company's partners to spend a couple of days in Tucson to get the students over a few rough spots.


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