Robotics team takes fifth consecutive win
MANHATTAN -- The American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers began hosting a student robotics competition five years ago, coinciding with the society's annual international meeting. Teams from the U.S., Canada, and Taiwan have competed for top honors and bragging rights since 2007.
For the fifth consecutive year those distinctions belong to one team: Kansas State University.
K-State edged Oklahoma State University for first place in the competition's closest finish ever. The Oklahoma State team made a positive difference in the K-State team's performance, members said. Needing superglue late in the competition, the K-State team borrowed some from the Oklahoma State before eventually prevailing.
"We feel like we owe them a great debt for their help, and we really appreciate their sportsmanship," said Naiqian Zhang, professor of biological and agricultural engineering and team adviser.
The society's student robotics competition is to design solutions to common agricultural issues. This year the team constructed a board 8 feet by 8 feet and positioned bristles intermittently around it to simulate the presence of crops. The objective of the competition was for the team's robot to complete as many laps as possible around the crops in three minutes. In the process, the team's robot was to drop coffee grounds at a certain distance away from the crops to illustrate accuracy. Points were awarded for laps and for the grounds being an appropriate distance. Not falling within an appropriate distance and manual adjustments resulted in deductions.
The role of the robot simulates a guidance system for a harvester, where a part of the crop has been cut and the machine follows the resulting crop edge in subsequent passes, according to the official challenge for the competition.
"It may also stimulate precision chemical applications to avoid the over spray of fertilizers and pesticides," Zhang said.
The bristles were not solid and had gaps separating them. The robot's sensors had to be insensitive to the gaps between the bristles and the sensors had to be accurate in measuring distance, according to Zhang. An actuator was also necessary to spray the coffee grounds.
Preparations for the K-State team began late in the 2011 spring semester. All aspects of the project, from sensors to the different types of robots, were under consideration. The 2011 team chose to use the same microcontroller and robot type as it had in prior years. But the K-State team is unique because it develops two plans throughout the preparation phase.
"As we go we find that Plan A is more promising, we put more effort into that one and continue on Plan B," Zhang said.
Such planning was beneficial this year. In the week prior to the competition, the team decided to test the robot's operation in different rooms under different conditions. This approach required the board to be disassembled and reassembled three times in three days before the team's departure to the competition. On the third day, the team practiced after a big overnight rain, and had to make major adjustments on the software to deal with the high humidity caused by the rain. The high-humidity condition appeared again at the competition. Fortunately for K-State, the team was prepared.
"If we did not practice the day before departure our robot would have failed," Zhang said.
The team's consistent success can be attributed to several factors, according to Zhang. Emphasis on the educational values of student competitions from both the department of biological and agricultural engineering and the College of Engineering, as well as strong support from faculty members often prove beneficial to students.
"2011 has been a great year for our department," Zhang said. "We swept all three major competition sponsored by American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers: quarter-scale tractor, fountain wars and robotics."
Zhang credits his students for their talents, dedication and teamwork, as well as their willingness to adopt his philosophy entering competition. "I always tell students, 'We're not going there to compete, we're going there to win,'" he said. "It's become the philosophy of the entire team, not just mine."
Financial support for the team came from several different sources. AGCO, the agricultural equipment manufacturer, provided $1,000. The College of Engineering and department of biological and agricultural engineering contributed $750 each. The K-State Student Governing Association, the Kansas section of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers and several individuals provided additional funding.
Competition team members, all concurrent bachelor's and master's students in biological and agricultural engineering unless otherwise noted, include: Spencer Kepley, Chanute; Daniel Bigham, Meriden; Brenton Ware, Mission; Joseph Dvorak, doctoral student, Perry, Okla.; and Xu "Kevin" Wang, doctoral student, China.