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Students Mount a Rescue Program ... for Robots

This is the second article in a twelve part series highlighting Berea's summer research projects.

The team works on various aspects of the robot project.

Programming a robot is no easy task; if you don’t agree, ask BC senior, Bridgette Bynum. Working with a team under the supervision of Dr. Jan Pearce and Dr. James Blackburn-Lynch, Bridgette is assisting in the software engineering portion of a four year project in conjunction with the University of Minnesota. The “Swarm Robotics: Research and Rescue Operations” project is designed to study the use of dispersion algorithms with miniature robots. Dispersion algorithms are equations that direct the robots to search large areas without running into each other.

Funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation with additional funding from Berea College, this long-term project aims to aid in the creation of small, inexpensive robots which may provide assistance in seeking and rescuing individuals from areas that may otherwise be too dangerous to permit rescue personnel.

The robot, approximately the size of a soda can, utilizes wireless technology to communicate between a monitoring station and itself. The team is currently experimenting with initial dispersion, which will eventually be expanded towards the end goal of performing a search and rescue mission. Initial dispersion is the original separation of a number of robots from one another. Essentially, the function is supposed to separate all of the robots in order to cover a large area without running into one another.

In order to achieve this, Bridgette and her three co-workers split the tasks to focus on certain areas of the project. Bridgette focuses on the graphical user interface; this helps the user of the robot to issue commands directly to the robot thru the wireless communication method. BC juniors, Christopher Pemberton and Sam Ashworth, focus on writing algorithms for the robot, including obstacle avoidance and decision making. Matthew Isaacs, senior and project manager, works on hardware as well as software issues and drivers for a camera that will hopefully be attached to the robot.

Bridgette and her team find working together pretty easy. She says, “It's nice because we all had skills in different areas of the project. It's nice because we can all run the program we're writing past each other for comments and help. We all celebrate each other's triumphs and make suggestions after our failures.” The biggest challenge for the team has been the hard work and dedication that it takes to make the robot project a reality. “I think our biggest challenge is that this project goes so far beyond the skills we acquire in the classroom that all of us had a learning curve. We spent a lot of time pouring over documentation and learning new skills.” says Bridgette

For Bridgette, this project has been a great challenge. “Realistically, it has been a research experience in all meanings of the word.” A computer science minor, Bridgette still found herself in need of developing her abilities, which was achieved in expanding the knowledge previously gained through her college education. “I feel I have really learned a lot,” says Bridgette, “I have developed a whole new skill set.” After overcoming this challenge, Bridgette was surprised at the amount that she had accomplished over the weeks. “I'm surprised the most by how quickly we all learned what we needed to learn to make this project work. All of us learned new skills and did so quickly. Some of us learned to be proficient in programming languages we had never used,” commented Bridgette.

At the end of the day, however, Bridgette feels like the project is worth the hard work. “It continues to amaze me how much I learn at this job. Every day I go to work and learn something new. That isn't necessarily something that's a part of jobs I've had before. It's just awesome to go to work everyday and be met with challenges and see yourself meet and overcome them.”

After 10 weeks of working on the robot, the research team hopes to conclude their portion of the project by the end of July. The robots will remain at Berea to be used in subsequent research in the lab and the classroom for the next three years and possibly beyond.

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