EE Students Win Robotics Contest in China, Aug. 16, 2001

 Jose Guilberto and Steve Wasson


 José Guilberto (first place) and
Steve Wasson (third place)
SOCORRO, N.M., Aug. 14, 2001 -- New Mexico Tech electrical engineering students José Guilberto and Steven Wasson returned from China on Aug. 5 with trophies in hand. Guilberto took first place, and Wasson took third place in the senior division among over 100 participants in the Second Annual Regional Fire-Fighting Home Robot Competition in Beijing, China. Wasson's robot, The Robert Paulson Project, was designed and built in EE 382 (Introduction to Design) by Wasson and fellow students Scott Dearie, Kevin Fisher, and Brian Rajala.

Guilberto and Wasson were personally invited by Dr. Wie-Min Yun, CEO of Shanghai Grandar Electronics, sponsor of the competition, to participate in the event after Tech's exceptional showing at the International Competition in Hartford, Conn., earlier this year. The International event sanctions regional competitions in many states and countries to allow more people to participate in robotics competitions without having to travel great distances. Winners of the regional competitions will be invited to compete in next year's international competition. Guilberto and Wasson were the first and only Americans to participate in the regional contest in China, so their victory was especially significant.

All teams in the competition designed, built and programmed robots to maneuver through a maze, (simulating the hallways and rooms of a one story house), detect a lit candle, and extinguish the flame. The team that successfully put out the fire in the least amount of time was declared the winner. In addition, each team could choose various options which added to the difficulty of the task. Guilberto and Wasson selected all of the available options, improving their final scores. For instance, the robots were programmed to return to their original starting position and were able to navigate obstacles such as ramps. Dr. Stephen Bruder, assistant professor and advisor for the robotics teams explained the long range goal of the project, "In the future, life-size robots could be stationed in a closet, respond to a fire alarm, seek, out and extinguish a fire before it has a chance to spread." Wasson added that it is very satisfying to work on a project that can save lives and property.

The robots move much like the remote controlled cars that children play with, but a key difference is that the robots are autonomous. Their actions are not controlled directly by the creator, except via a computer program that tells the robot what to do. This adds to the complexity of the competition, since, as Guilberto put it, "So many things can go wrong, from a sensor to a glitch in the program, that could alter the operation of the robot. The goal is reliability, you want the robot to do the same thing every time, and that is very difficult."

When asked about their treatment in China, both students raved about how well they were received, both by other contestants and people on the street. Wasson said, " All the other participants were amazed at our robots, and there were dozens of people who wanted to look at them and talk to us about how they work." He added that before they left for China, they had heard horror stories about brutal treatment of Americans, but instead they were treated like kings. "People stopped us on the street and asked to have their pictures taken with us."

Guilberto agreed that it was very interesting to travel to a different country and see their technology, and explain our technology to the Chinese contestants. "My view of China changed after this trip," he concurred. "It is a very nice and safe place to visit. The Chinese people are very friendly to tourists." He added that he expected the competition to be something totally different from the International Competition in Hartford, Conn., but it was not so. "The only problem," he reported, "was that all of the announcements were in Chinese. It was hard to know when it was our turn, and when we were supposed to go on stage to receive our awards, but our fellow participants helped us."

Wasson said that he loved the competition, and while the event itself was very much like the competition in the U.S., one key difference was that this time they had to dismantle their robots and pack them to be able to survive the trip being checked as luggage. In the previous event, they carried the robots onboard the plane with them. Once in China, the students had to re-assemble the robots, a complication that they overcame with great success.

Guilberto wanted to share the victory with the advisors for the Tech robotics program, Dr. Stephen Bruder and Dr. Kevin Wedeward, among others. "I would like to thank many people whose support was instrumental to this accomplishment. Foremost among these are Dr. Bruder and Dr. Wedeward who were the first to introduce robotics to the electrical engineering department's curriculum. We also could not have had such success without the efforts of former student Julie Wiens, who was the main person involved in building the award-winning robots. Finally, I would like to thank Dr. Van Romero, Mr. Herb Fernandez, and Dr. Peter Gerrity for their economic assistance in making the trip to China possible. "