Research Communications

Snow Day 

A robotic snowplow teaches engineering students navigation skills

April 19, 2012

Editor’s Note: This is one of more than 500 projects that will be presented at this year’s Student Research and Creative Activity Expo, to be held from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., Thursday, May 3 at the Convocation Center.

A group of Ohio University student engineers have an answer to one of winter’s most vexing chores. A robot they designed will plow snow by itself. It will go around obstacles. It will even do all of this without so much of a promise of hot chocolate afterward.

But Ohio University’s Monocular Autonomously Controlled Snowplow, affectionately known as M.A.C.S., is no progenitor for a family of self-run snowplows—yet. The Ohio University team built M.A.C.S. to compete in the second annual national autonomous snowplow competition held by the Institute of Navigation in St. Paul, Minnesota, in January. (Watch a video of M.A.C.S. in action here)

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In January, Ohio University’s robotic snowplow team won a national navigation competition for the second year in a row. M.A.C.S. tackles the white stuff with a navigation system that bounces laser pulses off beacons. Photo credit: Russ College of Engineering and Technology.

It’s an event designed to give engineering students a real-world test bed for aviation navigation technologies. The team, which included undergraduates Sam Craig and Ryan Kollar and doctoral students Pengfei Duan and Kuangmin Li, had a leg up on their competitors. The university’s Avionics Engineering Center is one of the only programs in the country of its kind, focusing on in-flight electronics and navigation solutions. 

To prep for the big event, team members spent countless hours testing M.A.C.S. on the courses it would see during the competition. First they had to assemble the course, which proved to be difficult with Athens’ marginal winter this year. When they could muster enough of the white stuff with help of the Bird Ice Arena, M.A.C.S. would sometimes spin out or get mired in the snow.

Kollar says the team considered different navigation techniques for getting M.A.C.S. from point A to point B. They eventually decided against using a GPS system as it would be prone to poor satellite reception in the city environment. Instead, the team chose a navigation system that bounces laser pulses off beacons. On startup, M.A.C.S. scans its surroundings with the laser to create a map, which it then uses during the competition to find its way around the snowfield.

For the first course, the “straight I,” M.A.C.S. plowed a 10-meter-long line, turned around, and plowed the remaining snow on the way back. On the second course, a 25-meter-long U-shaped path, the robot took two left turns and a 180-degree turn, followed by the same course back. The courses become more complicated every year to keep engineers on their toes.

Despite the extra programming needed for a laser-based, beacon-aided system and the fancy jargon, Craig says the beacons themselves were rudimentary.

“We call them beacons to make them sound more complex, but they’re really just PVC pipes,” she says.

All the testing paid off. In January, Ohio University’s team won the national competition for the second year in a row.

The contest is more than a way to show off robots, says faculty adviser Wouter Pelgrum. The event allows students to meet professionals in navigation engineering, which may lead to jobs, postgraduate studies, or simply a better understanding of navigation.

“So for the students this is not just plowing some snow,” he says. “This is a great opportunity for talented students to meet high ranking people in the navigation industry and potential future employers.”

By Adam Liebendorfer

This article will appear in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship, and creative activity of Ohio University faculty, staff, and students.

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