Feb 042007

What started off three years ago as a heavy, unreliable and cumbersome prototype became the fourth most prestigious robot in the world last summer.

As Germany clenched its spot in the World Cup semi-finals a few towns away, the hard work of a 12-member CSU team of engineers paid off. The Rams snagged a fourth-place win in the 2006 World RoboCup last June.

And now, the team’s gearing up to do it all over again.

“Two and a half years ago we had a group of six mechanical engineering seniors who were tasked with coming up with a radical new design for a search and rescue robot (and) Good Samaritan was the result,” said Carl Kaiser, a graduate adviser for the project.

According to the competition’s Web site, the ultimate goal of the RoboCup project is to develop a team of fully autonomous humanoid robots that can win against the human world champion team in soccer by 2050.

The competition also yearns to develop smarter search and rescue robots.

The team is part of the practicum course charged with the goal of creating a Good Samaritan 2.0, a newer and better version than the first. Now the team is preparing for this year’s robot competition in Atlanta, but with their most recent high-ranking win still on their minds.

The 11-month struggle to Bremen was complete and the results shocked them. The idea first came to fruition with paper, pencil, cardboard and plenty of coffee, ultimately developing a complex search and rescue robot known as “Good Samaritan.”

“After the first round of cuts we found ourselves in the top third and we kept getting better and better, and we kept progressing consistently until we had took fourth,” Kaiser said.

After the team brainstormed and conceptualized an idea, they sent their proposal along with a prototype to Germany for submission.

They then began to build the next Good Samaritan. This second-phase robot would be lighter, more maneuverable and better equipped. The team used carbon fiber for the frame to reduce weight.

“Most for the money and supplies to build Good Samaritan came from alumni funds,” Kaiser said.

The team created a motor-powered linkage bar, which when raised and lowered shifted Good Samaritan’s center of gravity, allowing the robot to climb and descend angles without tipping over.

The students also added a digital camera for the eyes and an infrared camera used to located victims in a disaster area. Three motors drive the robot, two of which are used for the drive train, the other to raise and lower the linkage bar.

Some of the most important components such as power sources and the control mechanism are everyday objects. Cell phone batteries power the electronics. More expensive lithium polymer batteries power the power-hungry motors.

“We use a Playstation controller because the rescue workers don’t get training with the robot ahead of time,” Kaiser said. “So to make it usable we try to make the robot as close to a video game as we possibly can.”

Seven months into building the robot, it was time to take Good Samaritan to Atlanta to qualify for the world finals, but the robot didn’t seem ready to compete.

“Going into Atlanta we weren’t sure how Good Samaritan would perform; the robot wasn’t functioning when we left,” Ross MacGregor, the team materials composite expert said. “But then everything came together at the last minute and we took second.”

In Atlanta the team beat out such teams as Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgia Institute of Technology, losing only to the university team from Bremen, Germany.

“We kind of joked about (Germany),” Noah McKechnit, a CSU graduate said. “Then we took second in Atlanta and it started looking more feasible”

Back home in Fort Collins, the team initially started devoting 16 hours a week to the robot, but as the Bremen competition came closer, some members logged as many as 50 hours a week.

“Most of the teams in Germany that we went up against spent around one million dollars on their robot while we spent around $20,000,” Kaiser said.

The all-student team went head-to-head with teams of full-time Ph.D. faculty. MacGregor thinks it was the team’s consistency and reliability that paid off as they advanced through the elimination rounds and eventually took fourth place in the World RoboCup.

“To be nipping at the top three was pretty humbling.”

Staff writer Eldad Sharon can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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