Snow plow team

Team members include (L-R): Matt Miltner, Derek Fulk, adviser Wouter Pelgrum, Samantha Craig, and adviser Frank Van Graas

Photo courtesy of: Russ College of Engineering and Technology

Snowplow team

(L-R) Wouter Pelgrum, Derek Fulk, Matt Miltner, and Frank Van Graas display the Attack Cat

Photo courtesy of: Russ College of Engineering and Technology

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Engineering students plow over competitors

Team wins national autonomous snow plow competition

A team of electrical engineering undergraduate students from Ohio University's Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology placed first in the Institute of Navigation's first robotic snow plow competition held last weekend in St. Paul, Minn.
The three juniors not only beat competitors from five other teams, including nearby Miami University of Ohio and home team University of Minnesota – they also took top honors for best design presentation. The team received a $2,500 check for its first-place finish as well as $500 for the presentation, along with a "Golden Shovel" plaque.

Sponsored by ION, the competition tasked participants with designing, building and operating a fully autonomous snow plow to remove snow from a designated path. ION called for teams to use
state-of-the-art navigation and control technologies to rapidly, accurately, and safely clear a path of snow.

"The students were invited to participate based on their outstanding performance as student interns with the Avionics Engineering Center," said Russ Professor of Electrical Engineering Frank van Graas, one of the team's advisers. "Their ability to quickly learn and apply new concepts stood out."

Team members Samantha Craig, Derek Fulk and Matt Miltner – or Team M.A.C.S. for "Monocular Autonomously Controlled Snowplow" – began work on their robot last summer.

The completely autonomous snow plow functioned using a 360-degree laser that could spot a set of pillars, or beacons, the team places around the plowing area. An onboard computer then determines how the snowplow should move.

Each team was judged based on how much snow its robot cleared from a given area, with points deducted if the snowplow veered from the path.

Beyond the competition, the technology the team is developing has numerous practical applications – one obvious one being automatic snowplows.

"Who wouldn't want to sit inside while their snowplow clears their driveway on its own?" asked junior Samantha Craig.

But the list of uses goes on.

"Autonomous lawnmowers, wheelchairs, rescue robots, luggage carts at the airport, and even cars would all be a possibility if this autonomous technology can be tested and perfected," Craig explained.

Matthew Miltner said his team's design can also be used to test GPS signals and robot performance in inconsistent environments – a major problem facing this technology.

"We need our robot to operate in a cold, somewhat wet situation and deal with problems such as lack of traction," Miltner said. "In that way, as much as this is an exercise in computer-controlled snow plowing, it is really just a practical situation to apply these problems to robotics."

Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Wouter Pelgrum, the team's other adviser, concurred.

"Indeed, the objective is to advance the science of robot navigation – the snow plow happens to be a very practical and exciting way of getting there," Pelgrum said.

Team M.A.C.S., which will use the award money toward their studies and the next competition, noted that their advisers also were eager to test the snow plow’s effectiveness as a mode of human transportation.

"Despite the sometimes stressful circumstances, Dr. Pelgrum and Dr. Van Graas never let anything hinder them from having a good time," Craig said. "They were always the first ones to crack a joke or hop on the robot for a joy ride."

Russ College students have taken honors in past ION competitions for autonomous lawnmowers.