August 7, 2008

Robotics at Maryland Makes a Splash


Contact: Ted Knight, +1-301-405-3596, +1-410-703-4685, [email protected], or Missy Corley, +1-301-405-6501, [email protected], both of the A. James Clark School of Engineering

COLLEGE PARK, Md., Aug. 7 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- The University of Maryland's student robotics group, [email protected], won the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and Office of Naval Research 11th Annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Competition in San Diego, Calif., on Aug. 3. Fresh off their victory in that competition, University of Maryland robotics students are preparing for another competition to be hosted a little closer to home --- right in College Park, in fact. The university will host a new regional competition for land robots, the Autonomous Robot Speedway, on Sept. 6.


The [email protected] team competed in the AUV Competition against 25 other teams from across the United States, India, Canada and Japan, including Cornell University, University of Florida, University of Wisconsin, North Carolina State, University of Texas at Dallas, Ecole de technologie superieure, U.S. Naval Academy, University of Victoria, Georgia Tech, and University of Colorado at Boulder.

Each team was challenged to design and build an AUV capable of navigating realistic underwater missions. The University of Maryland team entered the final round in first place among the eight finalists, and held on to win the competition in only its second year of participation.

U-Md.'s team of thirteen overcame many challenges during the competition.

"Despite losing our main vehicle computer, busting a thruster propeller, temporarily losing our firewire cameras, and watching three team member's laptops die (including mine), the group worked together and handled each problem in turn," said Joseph Gland, a graduate student advisor for the [email protected] team.

The final competition included a range of tasks, including dead reckoning approximately 50 feet through the starting gate, pipeline following, buoy docking, tracking and hovering over an acoustic pinger, grabbing an object and surfacing with the object to a floating ring.

The [email protected] team is made up of students from across the campus, including electrical, computer, aerospace, and mechanical engineering majors from the university's A. James Clark School of Engineering, plus physics, math and computer science majors. The team was assisted by two Clark School professors who served as faculty advisors for the student group: Prof. Dave Akin in aerospace engineering's Space Systems Lab and Prof. Nuno Martins in electrical and computer engineering and the Institute for Systems Research.

The [email protected] team benefited from a particularly useful and unique facility at the Clark School's Neutral Buoyancy Research Facility in the Space Systems Laboratory on the University of Maryland campus -- the only such university-based facility in the country. The 50-foot diameter, 25-foot deep water tank is used to simulate the microgravity environment of space. Prof. Akin allowed the student group to test their autonomous underwater robot, Tortuga II, at the facility, which proved a valuable environment for practicing the robot's maneuvering capabilities.

The team is sponsored by the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Department of Aerospace Engineering, the Institute for Systems Research, and the Clark School of Engineering, and also receives corporate support from Clark School Corporate Partner BAE Systems, E.K. Fox and Apple, who donated the Mac Mini computer that was used to create and control Tortuga II. Memsense was also a sponsor, donating an Inertial Measurement Unit and other electronic hardware. Gaining increased support for their AUV project in the last year proved a key factor in the team's successful second attempt in the annual competition, which earned the students a $7,000 prize.

Many of the [email protected] students have also taken advantage of courses at the University of Maryland designed to stimulate students' interest in solving open-ended problems, such as those involved in developing robots at the Clark School.


Gilmer Blankenship, professor of electrical and computer engineering (ECE), is experimenting with new and innovative teaching techniques in his senior-level course, "Autonomous Robotics." The course is one of the U-Md.'s Capstone Design Courses, which are intended to allow students to synthesize solutions to open-ended problems.

In Blankenships course, students work in small teams to build and program robots to compete in performing specific tasks. The robots can be described technically as autonomous mobile sensor platforms, consisting of a truck-like frame and wheels, with an onboard laptop computer, making each robot approximately 15 x 20 in size. The students can communicate with the robots using wireless links and a remote desktop application, as well as other custom applications the students design.

The emphasis of the course is on designing strategies and tactics, and programming the robots to succeed at challenging tasks, such as cooperating to pursue another robot, or racing around an obstacle course. The physical features of the robot platforms are much less important than their algorithms and software, which the student groups develop throughout the semester. To emphasize this, all of the robots are physically identical and have the same sensors to control movement.

The course is unique in that it allows students to benefit from innovations accomplished by students previously enrolled in the course. Elements of the best student designs are carried over to the next semesters class, so new students enrolled in the course build on a canon of knowledge, and start with software systems that have been successful at one or more tasks. This requires the new students to come up to speed on software written by someone else, a common task in real-world engineering design projects, reflecting the environment that the students will ultimately find in industry or research laboratory after graduation.

The experience has been extremely rewarding, said Scott Watson, a May 2008 computer engineering graduate, and a [email protected] team member. When students take control of their own learning, its amazing to see how fast we can go. Surprisingly, another benefit of the class is that I realized the importance and potential application of all the theory that Ive learned up to this point.

Blankenship has introduced new problems into the course each semester that challenge students to innovate and create solutions to problems even he admits may not be solvable. For example, last year, Blankenship asked a team of students to develop a method for a ground robot to control an unstable aerial robot, creating a mechanism for the aerial robot to hover directly over the ground robot. Amazingly, a team of his students managed to accomplish this late one evening, well after midnight. They nearly called him in the middle of the night to announce their success. I told them they should have called me, said Blankenship. I am very glad to see that the challenges in this course have inspired this kind of enthusiasm from our students.


The enthusiasm that has developed from students engaged in robotics activities at University of Maryland helped lead to the involvement in a new regional robotics event, the first annual Autonomous Small Robot Speedway competition. The inaugural race is scheduled for Sept. 6 on the College Park campus.

The event was conceived and organized by the Washington, DC Chapter of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers Robotics and Automation Society (IEEE-RAS) in conjunction with student members of [email protected] The event is co-sponsored by IEEE-RAS, the University of Maryland's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and Robotics Research, LLC, based in Gaithersburg, Md.

The competition, which attracted seven teams for its inaugural event, will take place outdoors on campus. Each teams autonomous robot will race around an array of traffic cones organized in an elliptical shape.

"The technical challenges posed by this competition will inspire creative solutions by the participants and nurture an appreciation for hands-on engineering projects, thus bridging the gap between theory and practice," said IEEE-RAS representative Melanie Vida, lead organizer for the event. "It is an opportunity to develop an autonomous vehicle that integrates sensing, control and embedded computing."

The robots' autonomous navigation will be comprised of obstacle avoidance, dead reckoning, telemetry, onboard sensor processing, computer vision, and dealing with uncertainty in environmental conditions such as uneven lighting conditions, uneven surface, and unevenly spaced cones.

This systems engineering exercise will once again provide students at the University of Maryland, as well as from other teams engaged in the competition, an opportunity to practice an integrated, interdisciplinary approach to solving problems and optimizing performance.

The students' vision for the Autonomous Robot Speedway race is to continue to grow the event each year with the goal of making it the premier outdoor robotics competition in the Mid-Atlantic region.The University of Maryland and the Clark School have recently swept several national competitions with its student teams. Here are some of the recent wins:

Aug. 3:[email protected] wins the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International and Office of Naval Research 11th Annual International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle (AUV) Competition in San Diego, Calif.

June 29:The Terps Racing team wins the Formula SAE West 2008 with a car designed, built and driven by U-Md. students. The team competed against 83 other teams from all over the world.

June 25:Aerospace engineering undergraduate students win first place in the NASA Revolutionary Advanced Systems Concepts - Academic Liaison (RASC-AL) student design competition in Cocoa Beach, Fla., with Project TURTLE (Terrapin Undergraduate Rover for Terrestrial Lunar Exploration).

Fall 2007:The U-Md. Solar Decathlon team places first in the nation in the U.S. Department of Energy competition to build fully operational, livable solar-powered homes on the National Mall in Washington, D.C.

NOTE TO EDITORS:high-res images and video is available with the online version of this press release: pressreleases/pr080708_robots.html

More Information:

[email protected]:

AUV Competition:

Autonomous Robotic Speedway Competition:

About the A. James Clark School of Engineering

The Clark School of Engineering, situated on the rolling, 1,500- acre University of Maryland campus in College Park, Md., is one of the premier engineering schools in the U.S.

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