Snowplow group

Snowplow group poses during competition

Photographer: Rebecca Miller

Snowplow 2013

The winning snowplow in action

Photographer: Rebecca Miller

Snowplow 2013

Russ College grad student Kuangmin Li and Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Wouter Pelgrum with M.A.C.S. in the lab

Photographer: Rebecca Miller

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Engineering students three-peat at snowplow competition

The third time's a charm, as they say, but for Ohio University, so were the first two.

Electrical engineering students from the Fritz J. and Dolores H. Russ College of Engineering and Technology brought home the winning snow globe trophy for the third year running from the Institute of Navigation's (ION) third annual autonomous snowplow competition, which ended yesterday in St. Paul, Minn.

They trumped seven other universities, including Case Western Reserve University, Miami University of Ohio and University of Michigan, which sent three teams.

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 "I" and "double-I" shaped courses.

Hundreds of locals, as well as sponsors and recruiters from companies such as Honeywell, Boeing and Lockheed Martin, lined up in freezing rain to watch the show.

Team M.A.C.S., for "monocular autonomously controlled snowplow," swept the events, placing first in the preliminary design review, student presentation, student paper and both of the two plowing contests – winning $6,000 for their efforts.

Undergraduate student Ryan Kollar worked with graduate students Samantha Craig, Pengfei Duan, Kuangmin Li and Adam Naab-Levy to improve last year's winning design.
Kollar says the competition was one of the most interesting experiences in his life.

"I have gained so much knowledge, not only in the field of electrical engineering, but also, mechanical, programming, managerial and organization, as well as teamwork," Kollar said.

The team's 600-pound, four-wheel-drive robot uses a 360-degree scanning laser to determine the distance and angle toward beacons placed around the field. M.A.C.S. can find its position within an inch, and its heading within half a degree.

"We call them beacons, but they're really just PVC pipes," said Craig, a three-year team veteran who has stayed on at OHIO for graduate studies.

Assistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Wouter Pelgrum, one of the team's faculty advisors, reported that a significant development this year was, technically termed, a special "un-stuck" maneuver.

"If M.A.C.S. detects that it's stuck, by comparing its target velocity and actual displacement, it will go back a meter and resume its course," he explained.

The end result? The robot keeps ramming into the pile of snow until the snow moves or its batteries are drained. But the courses are made more complex each year to keep the teams guessing.

"One thing we didn't anticipate was the huge pile of two-by-fours that the organizers buried under the snow during our exhibition run," Pelgrum said. "M.A.C.S. just about found its match."

The team says endless testing is the key to victory. They toiled for a solid calendar week of long days during winter break in their Academic & Research Center (ARC) lab – also trucking in snow from Bird Arena to test outdoors.

As they worked into spring semester, gawkers filled the window-lined ARC-Stocker Center connector hallway to watch them shovel snow out of a pickup truck onto a makeshift course built on the loading dock in order to put M.A.C.S. to the test.

The day before the competition, the team practiced setup procedures in the underground parking garage of their hotel in St. Paul, using an elaborate checklist to eliminate procedural mistakes under competition stress.

"Last year, we almost forgot to put the plow down," Pelgrum said.

At the competition, the reigning champs garnered attention not just for M.A.C.S. but for their uniforms.

"We wanted to pick a bright color so everyone could spot us from a mile away, but what we didn't realize is that during the carnival, the majority of the security and officers wear jackets that are almost exactly the same," Kollar said.

Cars stopped in the street to let them pass, and the team was even asked to help change a tire.

Russ Professor Frank Van Graas and Edmund K. Cheng Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science Maarten Uijt de Haag also advised the team.

Team member Duan said he enjoyed the teamwork most.

"This project allows many of us to work together, each of us with different responsibilities," he said. "Some of us don't even know each other before the competition, but after this project we become very good friends."

Craig said that each year's challenges have forced her to focus on a different aspect of the project, improving her understanding of that particular area and expanding her engineering skill set.

"Being a part of this project has been invaluable to my education," Craig said. "Working hands-on to solve real-world problems has taught me more than I could ever learn in a classroom environment."