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Engineering students design award-winning autonomous lawnmower

ATHENS, Ohio (May 2, 2005) --The prayers of sweaty teenagers across the United States may soon be answered by students of Ohio Univeristy's Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology. A team of seniors recently came in first place in the first Autonomous Lawnmower Competition, sponsored by the Institute of Navigation's Dayton Section.

Participants had to design a lawnmower that could trim a field quickly and work entirely on its own, using only the Global Positioning System for guidance. Each team was assigned a rectangular grass field of approximately 150 square meters. None of the teams was expected to mow their entire field - even the winning Ohio University team only finished 13 square meters.

Team member Dustin Bates said that in working up to the competition, he drew on everything he had learned in his four years as an electrical engineering major. That includes everything he was learning in the classes he was taking while actually working on the mower.

"Taking classes while simultaneously programming the mower really helped me master the material," Bates said. "Applying theory to something that's physically real made everything I learned come together."

Building lawn care equipment that uses GPS might sound like a quirky way to drive home lectures for students, but program director Frank van Graas said it was an excellent teaching mechanism.

"They have the opportunity to demonstrate all the things they have learned as electrical engineers, plus it adds a project experience that is pretty significant," van Graas said. "I think it has helped all of them to find out what it's like to really do a significant engineering project and it allows them to put it on their resumes to show they accomplished it."

Student Douglas Hall, who also worked on the mower, said that aside from the engineering and teamwork skills he acquired from the project, he also had a lot of fun.

"It was definitely the neatest and most exciting thing I did in college," he said.

Van Graas said that one lawn care industry representative at the competition told him that a reliable autonomous mower is the "holy grail of mowing." If any of the mowers had produced a perfectly manicured field, lawnmower companies would have built not just roads, but highways, to the designer's labs.

This year, a new crop of Russ College seniors is building on the winning design for the second annual Autonomous Lawnmower Competition. However, while last year's competition required the mower to mow a flat, clear field, this year's teams will need to build mowers that can detect and move around obstacles.

That will require quite a lot of additional planning. The students have no manual to work from, so they will begin with detective work to determine how the original model works. They then have to decide the best way to circumnavigate obstacles - on the course and on the project. They must set a quick pace for themselves if they hope to finish their mower in time.

"One of the most important skills we learn is time management," said senior Andy Shupe. "And how important it is to write things down."

For most of the six team members, this is the first time they have been able to pull together all of their lessons learned. Shupe said he thinks their Russ College education has given them the strong foundations they need to compete, but that he also expects to learn a lot from the experience itself.

"I think we're prepared with our backgrounds and what we learned in our classes thus far was enough to prepare," he said. "But there will be a lot of learning to come."

The Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, educates well-rounded professionals with both technical and team-project skills. The Russ College offers undergraduate and graduate degrees across the traditional engineering spectrum and in technology disciplines such as aviation, computer science, and industrial technology. Research areas currently receiving significant funding include avionics, fuel cells, bioengineering, oil and gas pipeline corrosion, and environmental pipes and culverts. Named for alumnus Fritz Russ and his wife Dolores, the Russ College is home of the Russ Prize, one of the top three engineering prizes in the world. For more information, visit www.ohio.edu/engineering.  

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Media Contact: Russ College Director of External Relations Colleen Girton, (740) 593-1488 or girtonc@ohio.edu, or Media Specialist Jack Jeffery, (740) 597-1793

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