Sometimes it takes a team decades to establish itself as a contender. The robotics team at SIUC has done so in just four years.
The Saluki team, made up of students from various programs within the College of Engineering, again distinguished itself during this most recent contest, placing second overall at the Association of Technology Management and Applied Engineering's (ATMAE) 2010 competition held in Panama City, Fla.
Prior to that, the SIUC team won five team awards and two individual awards at the 2009 competition in Louisville, Ky., and in 2008 it won first place as a team with one member placing as an individual, as well.
The team got started in 2007, placing ninth in the field after getting a late start and fielding a competition robot from scratch in just 40 days.
Bruce DeRuntz, associate professor of technology in the College of Engineering, said as undergraduate research goes, the robotics team is an outstanding venue.
"There are several reasons for having a robot team, or project team in the college for that matter," DeRuntz said. "These projects challenge our students to apply what they are learning in the classroom to a real-world problem. It forces them to develop critical thinking skills, learn to work together as a team and develop their project management skills. In terms of research training, the students have developed several novel designs that could possibly be patented."
DeRuntz said the team members often also are part of a unique leadership cadre within the college, sponsored by and named for Richard W. Blaudow and his wife. Brigitte. Blaudow is an SIUC alumnus who works in the industrial technology field. The program, The Blaudow/ATS Technical Leadership Program in Manufacturing, provides scholarships for students who show leadership potential in the field.
SIUC consistently competes with top schools from around the country, including the University of Northern Iowa, Missouri State University, Eastern Kentucky University, Morehead State University, University of Wisconsin-Platteville, University of North Dakota, Central Connecticut State University, Cal Poly, Iowa State University and Millersville University and others.
Each year, ATMAE stages a weekend-long contest that pits student-designed-and-built robots from colleges and universities across the country. Contest organizers set the parameters and identify the challenging environment that each year's creations must overcome to win.
For example, the SIUC team's most-recent creation, dubbed the "Saluki Flux," was tasked with autonomously finding pipes buried in the famous white sands of Panama City. This required a robot that could traverse the fine particles without getting stuck, find a pipe and pick it up.
SIUC students met these challenges by wrapping Saluki Flux's wheels in old bicycle tires and ultrasonic sensors to find the pipes buried in the sand.
In what was essentially a photo finish in the robot competition world, SIUC squared off with Millersville University of Pennsylvania in the final. Both robots performed the tasks well, but Saluki Flux was edged when it lost a tire tread near the end.
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Ross O'Connor, a senior in industrial technology from Decatur, credited the team's work ethic with the most-recent strong showing.
"We have a lot of dedicated people on our team who plan ahead and stick to our goals," O'Connor said. "We work very hard and put in long hours to get everything accomplished. Every year we look at what we did right and what we did wrong and try to learn from it."
Being on the team teaches lessons that go beyond the classroom environment, O'Connor said.
"One of the biggest things I learned was how to lead a team. You have to be able to look at the big picture and help motivate and steer everyone to keep them moving toward the goal," he said.
Logan McNear, a senior in electrical engineering from Norris City, said everyone on the team contributed to its success. For instance, when the team realized the original four-wheel-drive system they planned for the Saluki Flux wouldn't work in the sand, it took group thinking to come up with bicycle tire track system that ended up working.
"There was constant innovation and teamwork," said McNear, who is president of the student team club. "It took the creative input of each individual in order to overcome obstacles as they were presented to us."
Previous design teams have been just as ingenious, dedicated and creative. The 2009 model, known as "The Juggernaut," was a speedy, agile 80-pound aluminum creation that proved itself a top performer in picking up racquetballs and bocce balls and depositing them in an assigned area during a series of three-minute robot-on-robot matches.
DeRuntz said students who join the robotics team come from many different departments within the College of Engineering, and typically have been tearing things apart and putting them back together their whole life.
"They love to learn how things work and to build their own versions," he said. "Building these robots requires a combination of skills associated with the various majors in the college. For example, project management skills are found in Industrial Technology, control system programming is found in Electrical Engineering and Electrical Engineering Technology, and of course the design aspect from Mechanical Engineering."
Even the moments of frustration have become learning opportunities and team-building moments, DeRuntz said.
"The reason why our team has repeatedly challenged for the national championship is the students' relentless desire to develop their team and leadership skills," DeRuntz said. "They constantly challenge themselves to get out of their comfort zone and learn to take risks in leading the team and working on the team. This is a very difficult thing for a college student to do when you ask them to organize, direct or motivate their own friends."