James Madison University

first graduates logo About this series: This is the 10th installment in a series of features celebrating the first graduating class of the JMU Department of Engineering. When JMU started the school four years ago, it set out to develop a program unlike any other. Through this series, you will see how the students and faculty have done just that, concentrating their efforts on teaching and learning the four pillars of sustainability that future engineers must embrace, not only to succeed in their profession, but to make meaningful contributions in the communities they choose to work in. The series will continue each week through May, when graduates of the JMU Department of Engineering take part in the spring commencement ceremony for the first time.

No Time for Alarm: Contest Approaches for Robot Team

The fire drill is getting ominously close for a group of engineering students who are building a robot designed to fight fires.

At the end of March, five senior engineering students will travel to Hartford, Conn., for Trinity College's Firefighting Home Robot Contest, a 15-year-old annual competition that draws up to 125 teams from around the world.
After working together for almost two years, the JMU students are making final adjustments and conducting tests on the robot they have researched, designed and built to find and extinguish a candle flame. Now they are coming down to the wire.

PHOTO: JMU studentsOne of the major obstacles the students have tackled, according to Matt McHarg, is the programming — "getting the correct coding so that the sensors can read accurately and the motor can move well," he said.

The robot is controlled by a microcontroller on board the basketball-sized frame. "The microcontroller is a small chip that does not require physical assembly but instead requires code assembly. The microcontroller does not do anything until it is programmed to do so," explained Joey Lang. Essentially, the microcontroller is the robot's brain.

"We have multiple sets of circuitry on the robot that I built in order to obtain power from our batteries, interface our sensors with the microcontroller and control the motors," Lang said. "We program the microcontroller to send signals to the motor driver depending on what actions we want the robot to take. These actions depend on the sensory data that the robot collects from the environment through its various sensors. The robot collects data through the sensors (eyes), interprets this data in the microcontroller (brain), and tells the motor driver (legs) what to do depending on the data the robot collects."

"Our robot has to go through each of these rooms," added Peter Epley, referring to the mock-up of the contest's maze, which the students built for testing the robot.

The wooden maze approximates the environment that the JMU robot will face at the competition. Constructed from plywood and painted flat black, the maze resembles a birds-eye cross-section of a house.

"When we go (to the competition) they will have a different configuration," Epley said. "You can't just program the robot to go from one room to the next. It will have to figure out where the door is and locate the candle based on that."

PHOTO: RobotDuring the competition, the robot also will likely have to negotiate scaled-down furniture, doors, walls and rugs. "If any of the obstacles is disturbed, it will cause us to lose points," Epley said. "Right now, we're working on trying to get the robot to drive straight. That sounds like it would be easy, but with the differences in motors and the signals that the microcontroller will be sending, the robot will have to interpret that and drive straight."

The robotics group has also devised an "audio start device, which is a circuit and sensor, that will allow the robot to autonomously start when it hears a specific sound," Jed Caldwell said. "The complexity of this system lies in the fact that the sensor and circuit must respond only to a very specific decibel level."
"As long as we can successfully put out the fire in the allotted time then we will pass the qualifying round, which is my main goal for the competition," McHarg said. "If we can secure that, then I would hope to place or win."

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