University of North Carolina students earn high marks in robotics competition

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Robert Brenneman didn’t know what to expect at the IEEE SoutheastCon 2022 hardware competition in Mobile, Alabama. As captain of the IEEE student chapter at UNC Asheville, Brenneman and his 11-member team developed a robot not knowing if it could compete at the level of their competitors.

“It felt like we were at the bottom of the hill looking for the majority of the project.”

Team UNCA left the competition with a runner-up trophy, beating top engineering schools in the region, like the University of Florida, Virginia Tech and Clemson. UNC Charlotte took first place.

For Dr. Eli Buckner, academic advisor to the UNCA IEEE Student Chapter, his team’s top result demonstrates the level of STEM education available in Asheville.

“We can compete. The quality of education that students receive is really high. This project and competition was just one example of how these students can be successful out of this (program).

UNCA-NC’s state mechatronics program, established in 1998, is one of four accredited mechatronics programs in the country, said Dr. David Ramsey, director of engineering at UNCA. Joint Program students attend live lectures with North Carolina State University faculty, while labs and some lectures are taught by UNCA staff. Although it is a joint program, students must be enrolled at UNCA as the program is not available on the NCSU campus.

“In the courses delivered from Raleigh to the campus here, (students receive) the same professors … so there should be no difference in quality for this course,” Ramsey said.

As a designated liberal arts college in the UNC system, UNC Asheville, Ramsey said, offers an interdisciplinary education as well as a more intimate learning environment, allowing the university to “produce a better-rounded student as a result “.

At this year’s SoutheastCon, teams of students from various colleges and universities across the South were tasked with developing a Mardi Gras-themed robot and building a small-scale, L-shaped parade route. points, this robot was to navigate the route autonomously while performing tasks intended to simulate cleaning the streets of Mobile after the parade. These tasks included removing small strings of beads from makeshift trees and into solo cups or trash can nets, as well as pushing a marshmallow, meant to simulate a person, off the road.

With its flashing LED lights and lively music – additional features meant to earn bonus points – the UNCA robot successfully completed these tasks in each of the four rounds.

“For engineering students, a lot of the courses they take have to be theoretical. … This club gives them the opportunity to take things they’ve learned in class and build something physical,” Buckner said.

UNCA and NC State are collaborating to provide joint engineering programs, Buckner said. These programs provide students with the opportunity to take NCSU classes in Asheville, saving them the hassle of traveling and taking classes in Raleigh. The students who participated in the competition are all enrolled in the mechatronics program.

Due to coronavirus safety guidelines, some introductory robotics classes could not take place, which minimized hands-on learning opportunities for students, Brenneman said: “Coming out of COVID, some team members really had no robotics experience. Most of the team members had never participated in a robotics competition before SoutheastCon.

However, as students of the mechatronics program, they all had one thing in common: an introduction to embedded systems. This course takes the theoretical concepts students learned in previous courses and implements them into a physical construct, Brenneman said, by merging hardware with software.

Hunter Horan, a junior at UNCA, credits this course as a reason he and several members of his team chose to enter the gear contest.

“Embedded systems implement many of the same skills,” he said. “There is the next part of this class and a lot of coding. So that sparked a lot of our interest and strengthened our skill base for this project. »

The competition in Mobile has proven to be quite nerve-wracking, said Ryan Stacks, senior. Every time the robot was turned on, “it was a huge exhale of air.”

Team members agreed that the most rewarding part of the competition was not earning second place. Rather, it was about seeing all their hard work pay off – developing a robot that did what it was programmed to do.

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