Blinn College District engineering students gathered in the lobby of the Walter C. Schwartz Building on the RELLIS Campus on Friday morning for a robot battle extravaganza that served as an opportunity for the students to test — and showcase — their skills and knowledge.
The robots, with four wheels and standing approximately a foot tall, are formally called Digital Systems Teaching and Research (DSTR) Robot Configurations. Blinn professors and students said Friday that the students have spent the past several weeks constructing and programming the robots, which loosely resemble vehicles and are controlled by a cellphone app.
Students attached long needles to their robots’ front and balloons to the vehicles’ backsides. The object was for each group to pop the balloons from other vehicles. Passers-by became invested in watching the vehicles wheel around and attack one another.
Blinn engineering professor Randall Hudgens said that the project — part of Blinn introductory engineering classes — reinforces teamwork and problem solving, adding that students formally evaluate one another and themselves as part of the course.
“The robots that come to the students are not always perfectly matched, and so the students have to learn to solve those problems. They learn to bend items and drill and do some soldering,” Hudgens said.
“They have to download programs and learn about their controller and how it works — and make sure their wiring diagrams are correct, because if they’re not, they wind up frying certain parts, or the motors go backwards,” Hudgens said, chuckling.
Hudgens’ fellow Blinn professor David Fleeger said that to create items for their robots, students used a 3D printing and product development software called Fusion 360.
“What they’ll do after today is take their robots and modify them,” Fleeger said. “Right now they run off of the phone app, and they will eventually run autonomously. The students will program them to follow a predetermined course.”
“These students are learning how to troubleshoot, because these things usually don’t work the very first time you put them together,” Fleeger added.
One group of five students — all freshmen — got particularly into the battle, clapping and encouraging one another as they took turns controlling their DSTR robot.
One student, Andy Tzul, said that the process of building and programming the robots helped the group members strengthen their communication skills.
“This class overall is really interactive. Most of our projects are group-based,” Tzul said. Fellow group member Arian Saedi agreed, saying, “It tries to mimic how engineers work in the real world and gives us a chance to work in groups on a single project.”
Group member and student Arnold McKesson said that since the class allows for some flexibility and creativity in the robots’ composition, he most appreciated the chance the group got to customize their DSTR robot.
“Finding those unique ideas and thinking outside the box was really fun. We got to draft up some cool ideas to differentiate our robot,” McKesson said. He said that they got to choose their own defensive plating and that they chose to use rubber bands to help hold their vehicle together.
The robots are creations of the local company Texas Space Technology Applications and Research (TSTAR). Matt Leonard, TSTAR president and CEO, was on hand Friday morning and said that the project helps students learn a variety of skills and try out different tasks.
“The team gets exposed to control systems, electronics and to mechanical systems,” Leonard said. “In partnership with Blinn, it gives us a great tool for exposing students to different technical skills and also helps us see which students are interested in that sort of thing and encourage them into electronic systems and mechatronics at A&M. Once they’re there, we have projects that we do in partnership with NASA.”