Bringing Machines to Life

Electrical Engineering major, Jordan Hartung.

Electrical Engineering major, Jordan Hartung.

Credit: Penn State Behrend

Robotics Club encourages creativity, experimentation, and competition

Engineering students are often hands-on learners. They are the young people who took apart their mom’s toaster, customized their own computer programs, and built mousetrap-powered vehicles in high school STEM competitions.

Once they get to college, though, the experiential learning opportunities often come only after a student has built a foundation in engineering theories.

Student organizations, like the Robotics Club, can bridge the gap and give tinkerers a place to apply the concepts and principles they have been learning in class.

“In Robotics Club, members can see their ideas come to fruition,” said Aaron Blair, club president and a senior Mechanical Engineering major.

Formed in 2015 as a BattleBots club, in which members built robots to battle in competitions, the organization was expanded and renamed last year by Blair and the club’s executive board.

“We wanted to branch out from BattleBots into a much more diverse field of robotics, allowing students from any major to apply their skills to real-world problems and design challenges,” Blair said. “Our club’s goal is to expose members to the entire engineering process beginning with a conceptualized design and ending with a working robot.”

The broader mission of the club has attracted students from a variety of disciplines, not just engineering. “One of our club officers is a chemistry major,” Blair said.

Club meetings draw twenty-five to thirty members a week, and the projects they work on are diverse. Some even benefit the larger campus community.

“We currently have a team of students working with members of Greener Behrend to assemble an automated greenhouse that will be located on the first floor of Lilley Library,” Blair said. “Once completed, Greener Behrend students will help decide what to plant, and both clubs will work together to maintain and improve the system, developing solutions to actual agricultural problems.”

Another project recently submitted to a competition known as the Nittany Lion AI Challenge would use artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies to design a traffic monitoring system. “We want to gather pedestrian and vehicular data that can be shared with campus planners,” Blair said.

While the project, one of nearly 100 submitted, was not chosen for funding, Blair said the club will continue to work on it. “The students involved are still planning to pursue the project and submit a prototype to the second round of the competition,” Blair said.

Competition is a vital part of the Robotics Club. Members participate in several robotics competitions each year including the National Robotics League, Rage in the Cage, and the MATE International ROV (remote-operated vehicle) competition for which one team is building an underwater robot.

“The goal in the ROV competition is to be able to locate and recover an item from the bottom of a body of water at depths of up to thirty feet,” Blair said.

Several teams of students are working on BattleBots in two different competition weight classes — fifteen pounds and one pound. The one-pound class is meant to be an introductory project for new members.

“It exposes members to mechanical design, electrical wiring, and basic programming, with the option of learning how to 3D print or machine components,” Blair said. “It gives them a chance to apply classroom lessons to something they can hold in their hand.”