JMU Students Lead the Way in Robotics


Just a decade ago, the concept of autonomous robots was still largely limited to research, but ongoing rapid advancements in the field have introduced the possibility of using robots in our day to day lives.  The recently established robotics minor in the Department of Computer Science is giving students an opportunity to participate in this revolution.  

Students in CS 354: Introduction to Autonomous Robots, taught by Dr. Nathan Sprague, worked in teams on a semester-long project to program robots that can operate independently in an unstructured environment.  In December, a competition was held to put their robots to the test.

In the weeks leading up to the competition, teams practiced by making dry runs in the robotics lab. Several details of the competition were withheld from participants until the day of the event.  While students knew their robots would have to navigate around obstacles on their own and find victims of a simulated radiation leak, they were not given the layout of the competition area or told the specific number of victims. Student teams were allowed just eight minutes to use their robots to locate as many victims as possible.

One group, Nic McCullough (’16) and Joey Neidigh (’16), located all of the victims in just seven minutes.  Friends since fourth grade, the two had worked on other projects together at JMU but found the robotics project especially rewarding. “I probably spent 20 hours a week on this project last semester. We were there all the time; it turned into something that was a lot of fun”, Neidigh remarked. “Dr. Sprague gave us checkpoints and tasks throughout the semester. They were very helpful for breaking up the work,” McCullough noted.  

Reflecting on the competition, Sprague said, “Overall, the event was a success. I’m very happy with the way it went. Every group stepped up and worked hard. Some groups developed very successful solutions. I plan to do something similar next time I teach CS 354.”

McCullough and Neidigh are currently participating in an independent study in robotics and will attend the SIGCSE Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education with Sprague in March.  They will present on ways schools can incorporate robotics courses into their curriculum.


Published: Thursday, February 11, 2016

Last Updated: Wednesday, September 26, 2018

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