MS Final Challenge: Flawless Victory!

A new record was set this semester, with the biggest group ever signing up for Intro to Engineering in Room 202. The eighth cohort to take this class, they were full of excitement as they spent the last four weeks of class designing and building a LEGO robot to respond to Mr Meadth’s latest Final Challenge.

In some ways, this was the most difficult challenge yet: the robot would be placed in a square walled ring, collect a colored item, and deposit it outside of the ring. Sound simple? To scoop up a smooth plastic object on a smooth wooden floor and get it over that mere 3.5″ of height is far more difficult than it sounds! How does the robot know when it has the item in hand? How can it lift it up? How to release it? Should it be able to steer? How does it know when it hits the wall? Will it behave the same way every time?
The game area: an 8 ft wooden square, with 3.5″ high walls; five
items were scattered for collection and removal
Mr Meadth’s advice to the students was plain: the robot that won this competition would be fast, simple, and reliable. Fast: this is a race against the clock, with only 30 seconds to beat the other robot in the ring. Simple: every additional moving part is one more thing that can go wrong. Reliable: it must do the same predictable thing time after time.
Left to right: Zach and Sam show their formidable forklift machine
After the last frantic rush of finishing work, eight complex machines lined up to take the floor. Bedecked with an impressive array of forklifts, scoops, and shovels, the robots stared each other down with baleful red eyes (ultrasonic sensors, actually, but the lure of personification is hard to overcome!).
Ruby and Brooklyne’s robot finds its way into the corner, missing
the yellow item by a whisker!
After an intense Friday of preliminary rounds, it was clear that one team’s robot stood out head and shoulders above the rest; Emma and Donna’s machine was indeed fast and reliable. Spearing the item every time, undefeated in every round, they were placed in pole position. Honors also went to Avala and Isabela, who did excellently on the first day.
Left to right: Emma and Donna sit proudly after another
winning round!
Emma and Donna (rear) narrowly beat out Avala and Isabela
Teams were given a chance over the weekend to regroup. Any programming or mechanical fixes could be carried out, in time for the elimination rounds. Several teams took advantage of this, and fine-tuned their bot in the hopes of gaining victory.
Left to right: Masa and Ma.kaha pause for the camera while the
competition rages on behind them!
On the big day, it was made clear once again just how challenging this task was. Several teams did not score even once—it really is that hard! Many teams found their robot just didn’t know when to lift the item over the wall. The lesson was hard learned: a robot is utterly deaf, dumb, and blind except for proper sensors and programming.
Left to right: Isaac and Josiah carefully plan their attack vector
After several rounds, Emma and Donna once again distinguished themselves as undefeated at the top of the pack. Avala and Isabela also scored solid victories. Josiah and Isaac also scored a victory, as did Sam and Zach. Caleb and Harry deserve an honorable mention; in the last round they were finally able to remove an item from the field… but it hit the ground a quarter-second later than their opponent!
The semi-final was swift and to the point. Emma and Donna maintained their winning streak by pushing Avala and Isabela out of the competition. Isaac and Josiah beat out Sam and Zach and advanced to the final round.
Would Emma and Donna meet their final match? Sadly for the boys, not this time, and not ever! In an astounding display of consistency, the girls won yet again—with a personal best of 4 seconds—while the boys swung wide and missed the target altogether. Flawless victory!
The final victory! Our photographer Isaiah captures the winning
moment an instant before the item hits the ground.
As always, congratulations to all participants, and to the many parents, staff members, and friends who came out to see the competition across both days. We were thrilled to have you, and we look forward to seeing what the next Final Challenge will be.
From left to right: Caleb, Harry, Zach, Josiah, Zach, Isaac, Brooklyne,
Ruby, Avala, Isabela, Emma, Donna, Cameron, Alan, James, Ma.kaha,
Masa, Isaiah, Sydney, Abby, Mr Meadth

MS Engineering: The Final Challenge!

Wow! What an incredible display of robotic strength and fortitude! Mr. Meadth would like to thank all of the eighteen middle school students who worked so hard and waited so long to show their programming prowess. Many thanks also to all of the many parents who came to watch.

Mr. Meadth watches for adherence to the rules of competition
as Kassy and Miranda head off against Tzevon and Mark
Tully and Dennis make the final checks as Audrie and Jeffry
prepare their program

Miranda and Kassy with the biggest, blockiest
bot of them all!

After a gripping round of preliminaries, it was clear that Jon and Ella were not to be beaten, consistently needing only 43 seconds both times to get all three cubes in the goal. Ryan and Gideon zoomed down the line with double wins, as fast as 37 seconds. Kassy and Miranda took it slow and steady, but won both matches with an average of 2:19. A special qualifying round also put Liza and Kaitlyn through with their prize horse, with a record-breaking 18 seconds!

Tully and Dennis proudly showing their machine

Ryan and Gideon were very proud of their
geared-up racer
In the elimination round, Liza and Kaitlyn beat out Jon and Ella with a lightning-fast 21 seconds. The secret? High speed gear ratios, where Jon and Ella stuck to direct drive. And in a stunning upset, Ryan and Gideon lost out–despite their high speed gears–to the perfectly consistent Kassy and Miranda, who beat their previous times by over a minute!
Mark and Tzevon designed a conveyor belt to
get their cubes in the box

Jeffry and Audrie went for the “tall tricycle” design

In an all-girl final round, Liza and Kaitlyn made the first drop. But they fumbled the second, and Kassy and Miranda faithfully dropped theirs in the box to equal the scores. A couple of unforced errors, some bouncing out, and the scores were again tied at two all! In the end, however, nothing could stop the speed and accuracy of Liza and Kaitlyn, who wrapped it all up with an impressive time of 49 seconds! Well done, girls!
For more photos and videos, students can use their Providence Google accounts to check out Miss Hurlbert’s online folder, here.

From left to right (rear): Mr. Meadth, Gideon, Jeffry, Audrie,
Kassy, Miranda, Liza, Kaitlyn, Ella, Lily, Paul, Angel
Front: Jon, Evan

MS Engineering: A Photo Update

The MS Engineering students just finished their penultimate project: to build a “stock” model according to instructions, and then to program it themselves to get it to work. This is a warm-up to their final project, which sees them build and program their very own robot in The Final Challenge without any instructions or other assistance.

Enjoy the photos, and feel free to browse our other articles, most of which are focused on the high school Academy. Send your comments and questions to us at rmeadth@providencesb.org.

Ryan and Mark show off their Znap, which moves around in
random directions, snapping at anything that comes too close;
apologies for poor photography!

Gideon and Kaitlyn built a challenging Elephant, which walks
and picks up items with its articulated trunk–very impressive! 

Dennis and Tully also put together a Znap, and learned a lot
about the importance of distinguishing between sensor and
motor ports!

Kassy and Liza (absent) also built an Elephant, which had an
impressively choreographed trunk routine complete with sound
effects; we also wanted to see if it could tip over one of the
puppies 

Evan and Angel built the only Robot Arm H25; it is something
similar to a factory assembly robot, picking up and releasing
objects within its reach

Jonny and Ella put together the only Stair Climber, which was
able to successfully climb the pile of books pictured 

A (mostly) successful earlier test run of the Stair Climber

Tzevon and Paul with their own Elephant and its unique slow-
motion dance routine

Audrie and Miranda consider their robot Puppy–almost as
troublesome as the real thing! 

Jeffry and Lily describing some of the challenges of just getting
their Puppy to stand and sit–who knew it would be so much work?!

Providence Engineering Summer Camp: Robot City

What do you get when you put one teacher, three 3D printers, four high school assistants, sixteen kids, three hundred multicolored LEDs, sixteen tiny robots, and 64 square feet of plywood into two rooms for five days?!

Answer: the First Ever Providence Engineering Summer Camp!

Day 1–If You Build It, They Will Come
Pardoning the Field of Dreams misquote, Day 1 was a foray into the world of architecture and design. The upper elementary students broke into four teams, and designed their cityscape. With only a few constraints in place, they freely designed bridges, hotels, apartment complexes, playgrounds, and the mysterious “Geico district.” We’re still not sure what the market is for robot insurance.

Alena and team search architectural
magazines for inspiration

The first few buildings emerge on Day 1

Sturdy apartment complexes and hotels begin to fill the landscape

Day 2–Light It Up
After a brief lesson in electronics (diodes, conductors and resistors, oh my!), the students set about electrifying their buildings. Silver foil ran this way and that, transporting those much-needed electrons hither and yon. The prize for this day had to go to Tys’ group, with their carefully designed master control panel complete with disco dimmers.

Robot City and Britt’s Bridge come to life!
One participant’s entrepreneurial skills come to light 
Tys overseeing his team’s very
formidable end of town

Day 3–Design and Print
Arguably, they should be called 4D printers (since they operate in both space and time), but whichever side you take in this controversy, you have to agree they are a lot of fun. Students learned the fundamentals of computer-aided design (CAD), and then produced their various artifacts: signs, statues, elevators, desks, and… an artifact. The New Matter MOD-t printers ran hot for the remaining days, with many students producing two or more different designs.

An small sample of the dozens of printed designs generated by
the camp participants
Students sit with Alena, eagerly watching their creations emerge
layer by layer
A tiny blue fountain sits proudly on a street corner

Day 4–Rise of the Robots
If all that wasn’t enough already, each student was given their own tiny programmable robot. The Ozobot packs a whole lot into one cubic inch, with students writing code for following lines, flashing lights, and dance routines. The robots were programmed in two different ways: with colored racetrack lines, and then alternatively with a block-based in-browser coding language.

These colored trails give the robot a path to follow and instructions
along the way
Lots of practice with the tiny bots
The block-based coding system is a snap!
Many participants created special
mazes and challenges

Day 5–Do Over!
The week finished with a chance to go back to anything and everything! LEGO Mindstorms was used to power an elevator and merry-go-round, more CAD pieces were printed, the Geico district was finally lit up in a convincing fashion, and the robots ran amok. (In the best kind of way!)

The Geico District–now a blazing panoply of light!

Six robots come out for a dance-off!
Jake adds the finishing touches to our
once-humble board–now transformed!
We’ll finish with a huge thank you to our marvelous high school assistants, taken from the ranks of our own Engineering Academy; Tys, Jake, Alena, and Samy all did a fantastic job, and we hope they get some good rest this summer.

Final Project: Bomb Disposal Robot

The Foundations of Engineering II group finished off their year with an exciting capstone project: design, build, and program a bomb disposal robot, such as that used by special tactical groups around the world.

A real bomb disposal robot, complete with camera, manipulator
claw, and disruptor

(One quick word needs to be said from the outset: this project was carefully and sensitively planned. It was made clear to the students that this was not making light of terrorism, explosives, or other acts of crime. Rather, this was another chance to show how our engineering skills can be used to create things that combat pain and suffering and sinful acts; such robots actually keep humans out of the way of harm as much as possible.)

The students were split into three groups at random, and they set about sketching their designs, in accordance with the design brief. Each robot was required to move through the following phases:

  1. Power up and deploy, moving down a ramp.
  2. Make its way to a classroom with a “locked door” (it was made of wood and foamboard!).
  3. Break through the door and enter the hostile zone.
  4. Locate the active “bomb”, and take it back through the door to a safe location outside.
  5. Neutralize the bomb with a built-in disruptor.
    The “bomb”, made out of LEGO Mindstorms pieces, with a touch-
    sensitive touch plate on top

    Within a matter of days, the three teams had settled on their designs, and were putting together large, strong bases for their robot. Needless to say, there were no instructions to follow! Ingenuity, teamwork, and a little bit of teacher input were the tools at hand.

    Eva led her team (Colby, Todd, and David) to include the following features: a rectangular base, a balanced torque/speed arrangement for the wheels, a controllable claw to grapple with the bomb, a giant “cattle catcher” wedge to push through the door, and a chain drive to aim the disruptor up and down. Initial tests worked very well in the classroom, with a high success rate of neutralizing the bomb. Their teamwork was first-rate, with an astounding level of co-ordination and efficiency between the four of them. The team was comfortably ready in time for the demonstration.

    Eva’s team’s early design, with base and claw in place

    Colby demonstrates the surprising
    strength of the robot, dragging a stool
    across the room!

    An almost-final version, with the disruptor now mounted; note the
    chain drive to pivot and aim the disruptor

    Todd’s “cattle catcher” came out perfectly first time, made with a
    simple but beautiful loft between two triangles

    The finished product, ready and raring
    to go!

    Alena had her first chance at leadership so far this year, with Jakob, Samy, and Claire working alongside. Their robot went for a rectangular base, a higher speed at the wheels, a forklift to actually raise the bomb off the floor to carry it, and a fixed angle for their disruptor. They were then able to use their extra motor to build a high-speed 3D-printed circular saw, for breaking through the foamboard door. That’s right–a 3D-printed circular saw! Extra code was built in to ensure that the saw would only activate with a very intentional button sequence!

    An early version of Alena’s team’s solution, with a solid base
    constructed (note the “omni-wheels” that allow the robot to more
    easily pivot left and right)

    Alena works on her CAD pieces, Jakob writes code, and Samy
    “checks the disruptor for functionality”

    An early outdoor test; note the addition
    of a forklift system on the front

    The forklift and fixed disruptor are now clearly visible

    Claire works to add in the 3D-printed circular saw

    Yes, this actually did work! (Slowly…)

    Lastly, Josh led his team (Ben, Victor, and Alec) to good success with a larger, more square-ish base, a simple but highly effective spike for punching through the door, an extremely low-speed/high-torque gearing for the wheels, a claw to grab the bomb, and a chain drive to aim their disruptor. They went for the slow-but-strong approach, which made perfect sense for a challenge where time was not a mandated constraint.

    The early days of Josh’s team’s design, with the highest torque to
    the wheels of any team (the tiny gear coming from the black motors
    to the large gears at the wheels ensures this)

    Later on, a manipulator claw was added, as well as a powerful
    spike, designed by Alec

    Josh instructs his team in proper safety protocol, as Victor looks
    and Alec attaches the disruptor

    The final stages, with a chain drive now added to the disruptor

    While all this was happening over the course of several weeks, the teacher assistants Aaron and Kylie put together the door itself, complete with 3D-printed working hinges and deadbolt. Their woodworking skills were put to good use in building a simple frame to hold it all together.

    The frame and foamboard door; note the hot pink 3D-printed
    working hinges and deadbolt, courtesy of Kylie’s design skills

    On the day of the demonstration, the young engineers eagerly followed along behind the robots as they drove one by one up to the door. After much pushing, and ramming, and cutting, all three robots were able to break through and enter the room. Of special note was Alena’s 7″ diameter circular saw, which took about two or three minutes to shred the deadbolt!

    Eva’s team attempts to push through the door with brute force and
    the “wedge” principle

    Alena’s team gets ready to cut through the door; note the cyan
    spike added to the rear as a backup plan

    Josh’s team pushes through quickly with a simple spike

    The robots located the bomb, flashing and beeping in the dark. The bomb was rigged with a pressure-sensitive touchplate on the top, which would have activated if the bomb was fumbled. All teams successfully took the bomb outside with no incident (other than the wind blowing the door shut again!).

    Eva’s team drags the bomb cautiously away towards the door,
    Colby at the wheel

    Alena’s team’s unique forklift method worked perfectly, deftly
    carrying the bomb to the exit

    Josh’s team pulls the bomb over some tricky terrain and back
    through the door

    With the bomb safely outside away from civilians, the robots aimed their air-powered disruptors at the bomb. This is a real tactic that bomb disposal robots use; the idea is that a quick blast from a shotgun shell should immediately destroy all triggers and batteries and other mechanisms, thereby preventing the actual detonation.

    Eva’s group and Alena’s group took a few shots to disarm the bomb (the trigger plate didn’t “feel” their bullets enough to switch off), and Josh’s team got it first try!

    Eva’s team squares up, trying to find the best angle

    Alena’s team hugs the package tightly, and goes in for the finish

    Josh’s team readies, aims, and fires!
    Eva, David, Colby, and Todd celebrate a job well done!

    Jakob, Claire, Alena, and Samy proudly pose behind their robot

    Ben, Alec, Josh, and Victor enjoy a job well done

    All teams are to be congratulated on a solid, successful performance. The growth exhibited by these students throughout the year is phenomenal–where they once were fumbling with the most basic code lines and how to attach pieces, they now moved through it swiftly and expertly, with a minimum of guidance from the teacher. No teams suffered critical failure, as some had on previous projects, and it was a delight to see the hard work paying off.

    If you want to watch the entire play in action, please access them in this shared folder. You are welcome to download or watch online–the videos of each team are over ten minutes long!

    Excellent work all, and we’ll see you next year!

    From left to right: Mr. Meadth, Kylie (T.A.), Jakob, Alena, Samy, Claire, Eva,
    David, Colby, Todd, Alec, Victor, Josh, Aaron (T.A.); (Ben absent)

    Project Demonstration: RC Cars On Lower Campus

    Elementary school students at our Lower Campus received a special treat last Friday when the students of the Foundations of Engineering II class demonstrated their latest project: remote-controlled cars. Utilizing much of the same equipment as the self-driving car project of last semester (i.e. the Vex robotics kits, CAD, and lots of trial and error), three teams of students constructed cars that they operated via a video game controller. After many weeks of hard work, multiple prototypes, and perseverance, the cars could move forwards, backwards, and turn on a dime with rack-and-pinion steering (well, maybe a silver dollar). Each car also had a built-in payload delivery system that deposited a 3D-printed figure at the push of a button, and a rear-wheel differential gearbox to allow for better cornering.

    The afternoon’s proceedings began with a brief introduction of the project to the 5th and 6th Grade students, given by the engineering students’ teacher, Mr. Rodney Meadth. Mr. Meadth outlined the goals of the project and recounted some of the difficulties the students faced during the design process.

    Mr. Meadth warms up the crowd before the demonstration


    During Mr. Meadth’s introduction, the three teams of students worked diligently to set up their cars. As with the self-driving car project, each of the three teams comprised four students, with distinct roles as follows:

    • Team Leader: co-ordinate efforts, give attention wherever needed, be an all-around expert in everything.
    • Mechanical Engineer: primarily responsible for building the physical structure of the robot, mounting sensors, and attaching custom parts.
    • Programmer: working on code that will navigate the robot around the course, incorporating sensor feedback and motor outputs to ensure success.
    • CAD Specialist: design custom parts in a CAD program (all students used Onshape), and then print them out for use in actuality.


    Team ESTA makes their final preparations (Eva, Samy, Todd, Alena)

    After the introduction, the teams each performed a solo demonstration of their vehicle. The demonstration consisted of navigating a course and delivering the car’s payload to a marked target area on the floor.

    First up was Team ESTA, with Eva, Samy, Todd, and Alena. After placing their vehicle at the starting line, the team carefully drove through the course towards the payload drop-off zone. With some slight course adjustments, ESTA managed to successfully deposit their payload, showing off their unique hinged box delivery system. Alena worked for weeks and went through several prototypes to ensure the hinges mated correctly, and could be driven by a VEX motor. Her online CAD file is publicly available here–you can even open and close the box by grabbing the lid with your mouse!

    Next came Team JABS (Josh, Alec, Ben, David), whose car intimidated the competition with bright orange, spiked hubcaps and a crimson racing flag bearing their team name. They too successfully navigated the course and delivered the payload, though at a slightly slower pace than that of Team ESTA.
    The Team JABS car living up to its team
    name with some intimidating spiked hubcaps, designed by Alec


    After overcoming some controller connection issues, the final team, JCVC (Jakob, Colby, Victor, Claire), demonstrated their car. JCVC’s vehicle was the simplest of the three, lacking the adornments or sophisticated payload system of the other two competitors, but what it lacked in sophistication, it made up in the form of speed, being the fastest of the three to complete the assigned task.

    With the end of the individual demonstrations, came the main event of the day: a race between the three cars around the track to determine which team had built the best remote controlled car. The elementary school students were abuzz with delight as the three teams lined up their vehicles at the starting line. The question on everyone’s mind: Who will be victorious? 

    The tension is palpable as the cars take their starting positions
    for the race; from left to right: JABS, ESTA, JVCV


    With a shout of, “Go!” from Mr. Meadth, the cars raced down the track. However, the chances of victory for one team were extinguished in mere seconds. Team JABS, despite an impressive showing in the individual demonstrations, suffered an immediate steering malfunction that, in spite of their best troubleshooting efforts, ultimately kept them out of the race. The two remaining cars continued to zoom around the track, largely neck and neck for several laps.

    In a huge upset, Team JCVC suddenly suffered a critical mishap! As Team JABS attempted to resolve their steering issues on the track, they (accidentally?) managed to ram the “emergency off” button on the side of JCVC! This left only one car still standing, still making consistently strong laps. Team ESTA ended by pulling confidently into the drop-off zone and depositing their payload perfectly, eliciting a roar of applause from the 5th and 6th Grade!

    Team ESTA members Samy, Alena, Todd, and Eva revel
    in their victory

    After the race’s conclusion, Mr. Meadth brought up the winning team and opened the session up to questions from the audience. When asked by one of the Lower Campus students how one goes about making a project of this difficulty, Team Leader Eva encouraged the student to, “always ask for help, be patient, plan stuff out, and don’t be afraid of failure.” Programmer Todd answered a question about the coding process by calling for perseverance amidst “a lot of failures” in order to eventually find success.

    The RC car demonstration on Lower Campus was a thrill for all in attendance, from the delighted elementary students to their cheering teachers. Well done to all teams for the many weeks of hard work leading up to this, and especially to Team ESTA!

    Robo Puppies

    Meet Astro and Cookie–they don’t eat much and they won’t mess up your house. They will, however, bark and sit and nod their heads, and maybe even roll over!

    The star attractions at our table; note the colored “bone” used to give commands
    to the two puppies

    Last Friday, Astro and Cookie–and their human handlers of course–were invited to come play with the elementary students at El Montecito School, as part of their Techsploration Day. Twelve groups of ELMO students came to visit the robot puppies one by one, and everyone saw just how easy it is to write code and have fun!

    Four of our high school engineering students (Jake, Caleb, Tys, and Sarah Jane) guided the El Montecito students through a ten-minute crash course in robot programming. Our students asked the younger ones what they wanted each puppy to do…

    Sit up?

    Bark?

    Nod its head?

    Blink its eyes?

    Say what color was in front of it?

    Roar like a T-Rex?

    Jake and Caleb show the younger students how Astro receives his coded instructions

    After writing in this command, the students then included some sort of trigger in the code, again asking the younger ones what that trigger should be…

    Show the puppy a specific color?

    Pat it on the back?

    Press the buttons on the front?

    Sarah Jane explains the finer points of Cookie’s
    inner workings

    In just a few minutes, the older students were able to write the program described, all shown in full color as it was being done. It downloaded instantly via Bluetooth, and the students could see the outcome. Astro ran on the spot, and Cookie nodded approvingly. Astro sat up when he saw red, and Cookie showed off by naming any of four colors shown to her.

    This simple code 1) waits for the color green to be shown to the sensor, 2) plays
    the sound file “Dog bark 1”, and 3) runs the motor to raise the head

    Sarah Jane, Jake, Caleb, Tys, and Mr. Meadth (rear)
    Astro and Cookie (front)

    Many thanks to Tim Loomer, Colette Crafton, and all the staff at El Montecito for receiving us, and running a highly successful Techsploration Day. The rain couldn’t dampen anyone’s spirits, and it was a delight to see the meaningful collaboration between the two Christian schools.

    Guest Speakers: Patrick Lindsey and John Horton

    Last Tuesday, our Foundations of Engineering II class had the privilege of hearing from chief mechanical engineer, John Horton, team manager and driver, Patrick Lindsey, and Lindsay Lindsey, Patrick’s wife, of Park Place Motorsports. Park Place Motorsports is a professional racing team that competes in WeatherTech, a branch of NASCAR devoted to racing sports cars.

    John Horton stressing the importance of teamwork in racing.


    Mr. Horton recounted his journey to a profession in the racing industry from his childhood fascination with his Erector metal construction sets to a life-changing auto shop program that he joined in high school. He stressed the importance of cooperation when working as an engineer, particularly in a field such as professional racing which combines a multitude of engineering disciplines.  On the matter of cooperation Mr. Horton said, “There’s always something that you don’t know about that you need a network to help you solve. Communication is key.”

    Patrick Lindsey explains the art of cornering in a race car.


    Mr. Lindsey focused on the driving aspect of the race, showing data gathered from tire sensors during a lap at Daytona Speedway. He related the shape of the graph at a particular instant to what the car was physically doing at that point and talked about the importance of such graphs in making sure that the car was operating at absolute peak performance.

    Our guests were also able to relate their profession to our recently (almost!) completed project: the robotic self-driving car. Jakob explained the various elements of his team’s robot to Mr. Horton, such as the drive motor system and the rack-and-pinion steering, and Mr. Horton confirmed that the same features were present on their Porsche, just scaled-up and more advanced.


    The Foundations of Engineering II class with their guest speakers.

    The Park Place Motorsports Team ended their presentation with an inside-the-car video of a lap around Daytona Speedway and a directive to pursue their passion for science and engineering to wherever it may take them.

    We are thankful for the visit from the Park Place Motorsports Team, and wish them luck in their upcoming 24-hour race at Daytona Speedway!

    Project: The Self-Driving Car

    We’ve recently reported on the Advanced Engineering I playground design project, but what exactly is keeping the younger group busy right now? If you pass by Room 401 most any afternoon, you’ll find twelve freshmen and sophomores, six computers, three VEX robotics sets, two T.A.s, and one teacher very hard at work! The project? It’s a little ambitious, but we are intending to design, build, and program three self-driving robot cars, in the manner of Google, Uber, Tesla, and a few others.

    Just another typical day of class in the Providence Engineering Academy

    The way of the future! But first a bit of background. Robotic cars fall into two broad categories: smart cars and smart roads. Smart car systems have all of the design and engineering and intelligence in the car itself, relying on GPS, lots of sensors, and careful programming. By contrast, smart road systems have some sort of marker built into the road itself to provide information to the car–one idea proposed in the past was to have magnets embedded into the road surface. While all companies are now putting all of their efforts into the “smart car” option, ours fall into the “smart road” category; we have a white line track on a dark background that shows the car where it needs to go. No white line means no navigation.

    Left: the design brief and the plans for the roadway; right: the actual roadway,
    newly constructed, mounted on an 8 foot by 8 foot plywood base

    So what does it take to get this going? The number one resource is human intelligence; each of the three teams comprises four students, with distinct roles as follows:

    • Team Leader: co-ordinate efforts, give attention wherever needed, be an all-around expert in everything, and keep a daily Captain’s Log.
    • Mechanical Engineer: primarily responsible for building the physical structure of the robot, mounting sensors, and attaching custom parts.
    • Programmer: working on code that will navigate the robot around the course.
    • CAD Specialist: design custom parts in a CAD program, and then print them out for use in actuality.
    The beauty of this is that each member necessarily must work together with the others to achieve the outcome. The mechanical engineer needs input from the programmer as to where to place the sensors so that they work with the written code. The CAD specialist needs to also work with the mechanical engineer to decide what is most needed and where it should be placed. The team leader needs to choose just how to spread themselves each day to get the current priorities in order.
    Ben (left) working on code; David (center) attaching his wheels to the frame

    Samy, one of the mechanical engineers, putting together a frame for his
    team’s vehicle

    Each team was allowed to choose between two types of steering design: rack and pinion, or a simpler design where the entire wheel and axle rotates around a central pivot. All three teams went for the rack and pinion, which is the same design found on modern cars. A single gear (the “pinion”) rotates on a flat linear gear (the “rack”), which pushes it left or right, in turn causing the front wheels to point in either direction.
    The custom CAD parts are another particularly exciting part of this project: the three CAD specialists are using the online platform Onshape to make pieces that are specific to their own robot. Just for fun, one team created a license plate with their team name, which is now proudly mounted on the front. Two teams are currently working on a box to hold a payload to be delivered along the route. The third team created a “shadow shield” to go underneath the vehicle and keep the line-sensing infrared sensors out of direct sunlight to make them more effective. The CAD specialists had to create bolt holes that match with the VEX robotics system, and they have infinite control over everything else.
    One team’s container design, intended to hold a small payload; a door is going
    to be added to keep things secure until delivery

    Another team’s payload device is an open tray which flips up to release
    upon command; note the square axle hole for connection to the motor

    Both of the above designs are printed full size; so far, it looks like they will
    be perfect!
    The teams have another couple of weeks to finish this project, and they look to be on schedule for completion and demonstration.
    Mr Meadth also decided that it would be fair for him to produce a proof of concept–can this really be done, after all? He used one of the spare middle school LEGO sets, which has an array of similar sensors and mechanical capability, but a very different coding language.
    LEGO Mindstorms coding language–colourful blocks that snap together!

    RobotC coding language, as used by the high school students–lines
    and lines of colour-coded text
    After a few hours of work, he came up with this smaller LEGO version, and it gets around the full track in about 18 seconds on its slowest, most cautious speed.
    The LEGO robot car in action–note the three colour sensors in a bank on the
    front; having three side-by-side allows for more sensitivity in response to the
    car’s exact position
    Proof positive–it can be done! Upon completion, the robots will be demonstrated to the Providence community; we may go down to Lower Campus and show one of the elementary grades what we’ve done. Stay tuned.

      Visit to UCSB Mechanical Engineering Department

      On Monday of this week, sixteen Providence teachers and students took a trip out to UCSB, to visit the Mechanical Engineering department. Kirk Fields, Senior Development Engineer, met the group there and gave a tour of a few of the lab spaces.

      The “clean room” was the first stop, and we noted that this is where Sarah Jane’s father works to assemble his company’s tiny lasers. We didn’t see him through the window, but there were many interesting microscopic images of gecko feet!

      The materials testing lab tied in well to what we have recently studied with our older group, Advanced Engineering I. Our students have been testing various materials in compression, carefully measuring the loads required to produce deflection, and deducing the modulus of elasticity–in layman’s terms, a measure of how “springy” a substance is. This UCSB lab held dozens of industrial-grade machines to do similar experiments in compression, tension, fatigue, and so on.

      Kirk (right) shows us the materials testing lab

      Kirk was also able to show us a special research project, which involved a Perspex beam that “pushes back” when it a load is applied. Ordinarily, pushing on a beam would make it bend downwards, but this beam is equipped with sensors and motors that resist the action; this creates a beam with “infinite stiffness”, so to speak.

      The beam of “infinite stiffness” reacts and pushes back against applied load

      We walked through some other spaces (including the wind tunnel), ending up in a robotics lab that housed an in-house competition much like what we do in our own middle school and high school classes. The college students design robots using a variety of motors, sensors, and LEGO structures; the robots (“rats”) run around a walled-in elevated platform and collect “cheese”.

      One of the “rats” from last year is on display in the central case

      The visit, though short, was well worthwhile. Jake, our senior, recently applied to this college and this department, so he was glad to meet some people and get a firsthand look. Mr Hurt, also present, graduated from this campus, and happily reminisced about times past.

      All in all, a positive experience, and we’re grateful to UCSB and Kirk Fields for allowing us the chance to come by!