Engineering Seniors Win Second Consecutive IEEE Robotic Competition

  • June 12th, 2019

For the second consecutive year, a senior robotics team from The University of Alabama took home a win at an Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers regional conference.

Five UA engineering students stand on a pedestrian bridge in Huntsville at the IEEE SoutheastCon 2019.
Brandon Quinn, Julia Lanier, Trent Whalen, Katie McCray and David Weil, senior computer engineering students, competed  at IEEE SoutheastCon 2019 in Huntsville.

Six senior computer engineering students won the Student Hardware Competition at IEEE SoutheastCon 2019 in Huntsville. Dr. Ken Ricks, faculty adviser and associate professor of electrical and computer engineering, doesn’t think any school has ever won twice in a row.

“It’s a new team every single year. It’s a new competition every single year. It’s hard to win,” Ricks said. “It speaks to how hard these students worked.”

More than 40 teams from across the southeast in IEEE Region 3 participated. This year’s competition theme was space. Students were tasked with programming their robot to autonomously move colored blocks and balls that simulated space debris from one place to another.

“We had an orbit we needed to follow in our arena where we collected space debris, and we needed to take it out of the inner part of the arena, in orbit, and move it into trash drop-off zones,” said Katie McCray, a team member from Tuscaloosa.

To earn points, teams could continue to just deorbit the debris, or for bonus points, teams could color sort the debris. Obstacles were also placed in orbit to make navigating more difficult.

“You would get penalized for bumping into things,” Ricks said. “It was a fairly complex scoring metric.”

The top eight teams after two preliminary rounds moved on to a seeded playoff bracket with a quarterfinal, semifinal and final round to name the champion. In the playoff, both teams were in the arena at the same time and fought for the same debris.

“The preliminary rounds were just one robot at a time. It was really the robot against the arena. Once you got into the final eight, it was robots against one another and the arena,” Ricks said. “This is my 12th year as the faculty adviser, and we’ve never had robots that had to go head-to-head.”

The competition rules and theme were announced before the fall 2018 semester and were refined throughout the school year. The UA students worked on their robot, named Big AL-e and often called Stumpy Sr., the entire academic year for their senior design project.

Before Ricks took over the helm in 2008, UA didn’t compete. Ricks worked with Dr. Tim Haskew, electrical and computer engineering department head, to provide resources for the team to succeed. Year after year the team has steadily improved and placed first in 2018.

Ricks said this project requires a lot of effort and hours for the students who choose to participate. Trent Whalen, a team member from Damascus, Maryland, said the late nights and stress made the win all the more worthwhile.

“It was really rewarding,” Whalen said. “It’s a lot of self-learning along the way too.”

Computer engineering seniors Julia Lanier, Michael Norman, Brandon Quinn and David Weil made up the rest of the team.

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.