Friday, April 7, 2017

University of New Orleans Team Wins Regional Robotics Competition

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Members of the University of New Orleans Robotics Club demonstrated the value of interdisciplinary collaboration when they won the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Region 5 Robotics competition on April 1 in Denver, Colo. The winning team, one of 33 teams in the contest, was made up of Nishan Rayamajhee, a sophomore computer science major; Prayug Koirala, a sophomore mechanical engineering major and Nischal Pant, a senior electrical engineering major. They scored twice as many points as their nearest competitor. Region 5 of the IEEE includes Louisiana, Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Colorado and parts of New Mexico, Wyoming and South Dakota.

The competition is open to teams of up to five undergraduate students who are challenged to build autonomous robots. The robots are tested on tunnel detection with use of mapping scenarios. Scoring is based on completing tasks within an allotted time.

A total of five teams made up of UNO students participated in the robotics competition, and all of them are members of UNO’s Robotics Club, an interdepartmental student organization involving computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering. Robotics Club membership is open to any UNO undergraduate student, freshman to senior, even with no prior experience in circuits or programming. Members of the winning team consider this inclusive, collaborative approach to club membership as key to their success.

“One of the strong aspects about the club is that we were all beginners in the start of the year,” said sophomore computer science major Nishan Rayamajhee. “We studied the components, built systems from scratch, failed terribly midway and eventually learned from each other’s good techniques.

“During the fall, we gathered together the interested students willing to devote the time to learn. We didn't form into teams right away, but rather divided into separate disciplines. Some of us worked on wiring the robots, some constructing parts and some on building sensors. Then we separated into teams and took it from there.”

According to Ted Holmberg, staff adviser for the UNO Robotics Club, teams for these competitions are traditionally composed exclusively of seniors in electrical engineering working toward their final design project. This year's champions, however, were much different: two sophomores and a senior, from three different fields: computer science, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering.

“This cross-disciplinary makeup of the club's membership proved to be a critical component for its success,” Holmberg said. Through club activities, students serve as mentors for one another to share their knowledge via peer-based workshops.

“For our robot, Prayug Koirala did the mechanical construction, Nischal Pant spent most of his efforts on sensor calibration and computer vision and I did the navigation,” said Rayamajhee. “Collectively we wired the electrical components, and this approach helped each of us understand each other's work and better perform when it came down to points at the competition.”

“The club's learning foundation rests on faculty, staff and strong student mentors who develop and refine the knowledge and abilities of their protégés,” said Jeffrey Gray, faculty mentor for the Robotics Club. “Through this model, interdisciplinary teams gain the technical skills for solving engineering problems requiring mechanical structures, motors and electronics and artificial intelligence to guide the devices in their tasks.”

 Since its inception in 2015, a key goal for the Robotics Club has been bringing UNO students of different disciplines together to work on challenging technical projects.

 “Learning to successfully collaborate with people between fields is a critical skill to develop,” said Mahdi Abdelguerfi, chair of the computer science department, who helped secure funding to send the teams to the competition. “When students with different skillsets work together, they achieve greater results by combining their shared knowledge. At UNO, we strive to encourage these opportunities and seek to further increase these partnerships between disciplines in the future.”

The Robotics Club has approximately 20 active members and is looking to expand its membership before next year's competition in Austin.

“Our last two competition trips have been to Kansas City and Denver with 16 students and 5 robots each time,” Gray said. “Students who put in the hours make the trip.” Students interested in joining the Robotics Club should contact the club via email at robotics@uno.edu.