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Team of Engineering Students Competes in SoutheastCon Robot Design Challenge

Nerf DartMembers of the ODU Engineering IEEE Robot Design team (left to right) Tanashia Scott, Nirmal Patel, Devon McGuire, Charles Tench, LaQuinta Spellmen, Johnathan Bailey and Ahmad Alazemi test their Nerf-dart-shooting robot.

The activity maybe isn't as exciting as a college basketball game.

But when the autonomous robot designed and built by the team of Old Dominion University engineering students fired its Nerf dart and it just missed going through the 5-inch-wide circular target, it was like watching a buzzer-beating shot almost go in the basket.

"We were all like 'Oooooh!!!' as if the ball had gone around the rim and rolled out," said Devon McGuire, a senior electrical and computer engineering major from Chesapeake, and team leader for the ODU entry in the IEEE SoutheastCon Hardware Competition 2014 in Lexington, Ky.

For the contest, eight ODU student engineers competed against more than 50 student engineering teams from across the country. Their challenge was to build a robot that could maneuver itself across a course laid out on a table and shoot a small Nerf dart toward its target.

After three attempts, the ODU team finished in 21st place in the competition, making it the top Virginia team that competed in SoutheastCon.

"When you go to school, this isn't the type of thing that you would imagine doing for a senior design project," said Johnathan Bailey, a senior computer engineering major from Portsmouth. "But we had to build the robot from scratch. We were given the dimensions of the test track, and the goal the robot had to accomplish (follow the track; shoot the Nerf dart). It was left up to the teams how to accomplish the goal."

For the ODU contingent, Bailey wrote code to apply Open CV, a program for implementing computer vision technology on autonomous vehicles, to their robot design. The design worked perfectly in their laboratory at 46th Street and Killam Avenue but, unfortunately, different lighting conditions at the competition site meant their robot had difficulty acquiring the target for the Nerf dart, Bailey said.

"We did pretty well, but I guess I was hoping to do better, because I'm competitive," McGuire said.

Still, the experience of managing a project from start to finish, including dealing with different personalities and experience levels of the team members, was invaluable, McGuire said. "I was in the Navy before, and there, everyone is on the same team because this is their job. For this project, everyone had different things to deal with. Some have jobs. Johnathan and I have families and children. It was a challenge."

The other challenge the ODU team members faced is they were essentially inventing the wheel. "Other teams had younger students there, to learn what works and what doesn't, and they'll take over their teams next year," Bailey said. "It was the first time for all of us, so we didn't know what we didn't know until we got there."

For this year's project, some underclassmen have observed the ODU team, attending design meetings and working on the project, so they won't be starting over completely for next year's competition. "We'd like it to be something that ODU competes in every year, and does well," McGuire said.

Oscar Gonzalez, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering in the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology, advised the ODU team.

Other team members included Tanashia Scott, Nirmal Patel, Charles Tench, LaQuinta Spellman, Ahmad Alazemi and Mike Wheeler.