Disadvantages in student numbers and vehicles?
Not for a 14-student Intelligent Systems Engineering team from the Luddy School of Informatics, Computing, and Engineering that finished first in the Defend the Republic Drone Competition. The Luddy group beat the odds and seven other university teams from around the country.
The prestigious intercollegiate drone event was held in mid-November at Pennsylvania’s Lehigh University.
Other participating teams were from Lehigh, the University of Florida, Baylor University, George Mason University, West Virginia University, Drexel University and Virginia Tech.
The Luddy team, from Intelligent Systems Engineering Assistant Professor Or Dantsker’s Autonomous Sports class, thrived in its first attempt despite a lack of experience and student numbers.
“The experience was extremely rewarding,” ISE master’s student AJ Funari said. “I am so proud of our team, which worked tirelessly to overcome obstacles and achieve success.”
The goal was to develop a lighter-than-air vehicle to autonomously capture helium balloons and push them into opponents’ goals.
It was, Dantsker said with a reference to the Harry Potter magical world, like robotic quidditch.
“Having such great success was empowering,” ISE junior and team leader Caeden Taylor said. “It was particularly reassuring to see that successful teams did not necessarily have the most complex designs. By the end of the week, we had beaten a lot of our expectations.”
Also attending the competition were Griffin Peters, Joseph Malone and William Lin.
The challenge was to design and control robot swarms that operated in difficult environments with limited sensing, actuation and computation capabilities.
“These teams needed to be technically strong yet highly-flexible to quickly adapt to change and to succeed,” Dantsker said. “This was key to both the rapid lighter-than-air vehicle development and winning.
“During development and especially during the competitions, students showed high ownership and pride in the work.”
The team’s success reflects high-quality instruction and strong student performance and innovation, said Beth Plale, Intelligent Systems Engineering department chair.
“I am so pleased by our engineering students, led by Or Dantsker, who joined the faculty this fall,” she said. “The team was called out for its ability to adapt and improvise to other team's adversary vehicles especially being highly outnumbered in both vehicles and students.”
Of course, there were, starting with building, repairing, and transporting a fragile vehicle with sensitive equipment hundreds of miles to Lehigh.
“There were definitely a few tense moments of scrambling to check if we brought the correct glue from IU or had an extra camera sensor packed in case something broke on the way or in the air,” Taylor said. “Luckily, we were well-prepared and didn't forget or break any critical components.”
Dantsker didn’t arrive at Luddy until August. He decided to enter the competition, and with just 12 weeks to prepare, quickly devised a development strategy. He split the class into three teams -- one focused on vehicle design; one on sensing, control and communications; and one on computer vision.
The lighter-than-air vehicle needed to have the strength, buoyance, and capability to capture multiple balloon targets. It needed propulsion controls for movement agility and needed to support the energy, power and mounting requirements for hardware.
It also needed embedded boards, sensors and cameras, as well as software, all of which had to be integrated into the vehicle.
“We started from scratch following the written specifications provided in the rule book,” Funari said. “With limited resources, we improvised by reusing old microcontrollers and hardware we already had at the Luddy School. By week 11, we had successfully built a functioning prototype with manual control.”
Dantsker said the Luddy team brought five students two vehicles to the competition, and designed and built a third vehicle on-site during the competition to counter another team’s strategy.
“This demonstrated how our team is technically strong and highly adaptive,” Dantsker said.
The autonomy team built a drone to capture a ball autonomously. The design team built one drone that used manual control. It built another for defense.
The defense drone had a spear on the front to attack opposing drones and remove them from the playing field.
“Using our fleet of three drones,” Funari said, “we strategized plans of action and defense for head-to-head matches.”
Funari said qualification consisted of manually or autonomously maneuvering the drone to capture a ball then push it through a goal. Teams could either manually score in 30 seconds or autonomously score in 4 minutes and 30 seconds.
“We qualified by manually scoring in 28 seconds,” he said.
Funari said team members gained invaluable knowledge that will help incoming students improve on their lighter-than-air prototypes for future competitions.
“I look forward to observing how future IU students advance drone capabilities and thrive in this competition.”
Taylor said he hopes this competition will further the development for human-computer interaction in robotics.
“A lot of our success came from not only how our vehicle was able to autonomously maneuver, but how we had our autonomous vehicles cooperate with human-driven ones.”