Technology

Mar 14, 2013 8:45 PM by JD Downing

TSJC students build robot to challenge Great Sand Dunes

TRINIDAD - A robot vehicle designed by students at Trinidad State Junior College will take on the unforgiving terrain at the Great Sand Dunes National Park next month as part of NASA's Robot Challenge. The contest, now in its sixth year, puts student-designed robots through ground obstacles they might face on Mars.


Representatives from sixteen schools will gather northeast of Alamosa on the unforgiving sand on the morning of April 6. "Most robots will be dead by nine," said TSJC Instructor Cindy Clements. "They don't move because the sand is so fine, the motors aren't powerful enough." Clements had special sand brought in to the TSJC Trinidad Campus to simulate what they'll see at the Sand Dunes.

Competing robots will face five increasingly difficult challenges. Course One seems simple. Just get the robot to move through the sand toward a beacon. But the robot is truly on its own. It must first find north and then follow the signal from the beacon.

Course Two includes obstacles, which become increasingly imposing in Course Three, Four and Five. The TSJC robot is equipped with two tank-like tracks, a meter to gauge if there's a danger of tipping over, and a sophisticated set of sensors on four front bumpers to determine the best way around an obstacle.

The main goal of the Robot Challenge is to get students interested in science, technology, engineering and math, also known as STEM. The program at TSJC is funded by a STEM grant. The students are enrolled in a class called Computer Sciences Special Topics. "Our job is to get students interested, and hopefully they'll transfer to four-year colleges that have the same grant," said Clements.

The Trinidad State entry is called CAT - Crawling Autonomous Terrabot. CAT ran for several minutes in its first test on sand on March 8. Then one of its treads came off. "We were running it and quite a bit of sand was getting caught in one of the treads and one of the screws popped off on one of the joints," said Student Team Leader Thomas Staver. "So the whole tread itself popped off of the bearings. But not the biggest problem considering (it's the) first day."

The team has six members, each with specialized duties. "I think they're learning a lot," said Clements. Freshman Jeff Manders is the lead builder. He plans to transfer to the University of Colorado in Boulder in the fall and become a mechanical engineer. "Biggest challenge will be maybe getting over some of the biggest rocks and making good, precise turns without picking up too much sand."

The Robot Challenge is an annual event, sponsored by NASA and the Colorado Space Grant Consortium. It's open not only to schools, but to anyone who has the skill to build a self-guided robot. There is no registration fee. The event starts at 8 a.m. on April 6 just past the Great Sand Dunes Visitor Center and will end at about 12:30 p.m.

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