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Champion autonomous snowplow team returns to competition – to give back

Kaitor Kposowa and Colleen Carow | Jan 27, 2014
Snowplow 2014

Champion autonomous snowplow team returns to competition – to give back

Kaitor Kposowa and Colleen Carow | Jan 27, 2014


After three years of victory at the Institute of Navigation's (ION) annual Autonomous Snowplow Competition (ASC), Ohio University’s “M.A.C.S.” team from the Russ College of Engineering and Technology chose this year not to try to cream the competition a fourth time, but instead to "create for good" by serving ION and this year’s teams.

Electrical engineering graduate students Samantha Craig and Adam Naab-Levy, M.A.C.S. veterans, volunteered to return as official Visiting Student Liaisons for the 2014 competition, held January 23-26 in St. Paul, Minn.

They acted as safety officers, as scoring assistants, and as a resource for competitors – and also presented to all competitors about their team’s challenges and triumphs.

“It was important to give back to the competition and committee members. They provided us with invaluable experience, skills and support over the years,” said Craig. “Adam and I represented Team M.A.C.S. to demonstrate that despite of lack of competing, we still support the competition and all that it stands for.”

Held as part of the city's annual winter carnival, the four-day event tasks students to design, build and operate a fully autonomous snowplow that uses state-of-the art navigation and control technologies to rapidly, accurately and safely clear a path of snow from various courses.

“It was cold and very windy,” Craig said. “The wind wreaked havoc on tents, pedestrian barricades, and even some of the teams’ navigational aids. The majority of them had technical issues.”

As safety officers, the two helped teams ensure they met competition guidelines.

“We measured the robots to make sure that they adhered to the size specifications and didn’t exceed the maximum speed set by the competition regulations,” said Naab-Levy.

The pair also were responsible for minimizing the potential risk of a snow-bot harming competitors, passive participants and surrounding objects. They had to check to make sure robots complied with the ASC regulations, and they worked with competitors to prevent robots crossing the competition boundaries. When a robot did so, they instructed the competitor to stop the robot via its E-stop, or they intervened by pressing the physical E-stop button.

Suneel Sheikh, a competition organizer who is also CEO and chief research scientist at ASTER Labs, Inc., said Craig came to the rescue.

“She heroically leaped to push a physical safety stop on one of the vehicles, after the wireless remote lost its signal and the vehicle went beyond the competition boundary toward our videographer,” Sheikh said. “Fortunately, everyone was fine and learned a valuable lesson on why the safety requirements are as strict as they are,” he added.

Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Wouter Pelgrum, one of the team’s advisers, noted that the students used a portion of their past winnings to pay for the trip.

“Competing for the past three years has been a tremendous experience for the students, faculty and Ohio University,” he said. “We’re very proud of the students’ dedication and leadership. Seeing them grow not only as engineers, but also as people, has been rewarding.”

Sheikh said ION appreciated Craig and Naab-Levy’s commitment to supporting the competition. “Their support was quite valuable overall, so we were more than happy to see them participate. We would welcome them back at any time in the future.”