SECON 2010 Hardware Competition

On March 17, 2010, an MSU senior design team competed in the SECON 2010 Student Hardware competition and placed 3rd out of approximately 25 teams. The project involved building a solar powered robot that traversed a course. The robot had a Microchip PIC24FJ128GA006 as its CPU, and its funding was partially provided by SmartSynch. A link to the student's home page for the project is found here, which contains design details for the robot.

Competition Rules Summary:

A solar powered robot has to traverse a square 10’ x 10’ ft course in three minutes. Each lap gains 5 pts, and there are three optional obstacles that can be traversed in a lap for more points. The obstacles are a width obstacle (8”w x 16”h, 25 pts), a height obstacle (16”w x 8”h, 25 pts) and a ramp obstacle (30 degree incline, each of the three ramps sides is 16” w x 12”L, 50 pts). There are four ‘basking’ lights (halogen lights) around the course for energy harvesting, the robot starts in one of the basking light circles. Each robot makes three runs, the best two scoring runs are used.

What happened at the competition:

The competition was split into two parts. The first round was a 'points' round in which the team had three runs on a competition track, with the points from the two best runs totaled for a final score. The top three teams then advanced to the 'final' round, in which the teams did one run which determined the final ranking.

A composite photo of the top 12 teams on the leaderboard after the 'points' round is shown below. MSU was in first place with 271 points, followed by Univ. of Florida with 213 points, followed by Western Kentucky with 167 points. This round was the true test of the robot's capability from an engineering viewpoint, as it tested the consistency of the robot's performance.

In the final round, which was basically a crowd pleasing round to inject some excitement into the competition, MSU appeared to finish in second place with 111 points, with Western Kentucky in first place with approximately 160 points, and Univ. of Florida in third place with 106 points. However, the final scoring gave MSU 103 points and Univ of Florida 105 points. Eight penalty points were given to MSU in that single round, where a penalty point was assigned by a judge watching a robot see if its solar panels crossed over a wall boundary (1 point for each 'crossing'). This was a subjective decision by a judge, as evidenced by the fact that MSU was only assigned a total of 2 penalty points for the previous three rounds, and their robot performed in the same manner in all rounds in terms of how it followed the walls of the course. The MSU team had the bad luck of drawing a judge in the final round that interpreted the wall crossing in a different manner from their judges in the previous three rounds.

So, MSU finished in third place in the competition. There were approximately 42 teams signed up, and approximately 25 teams actually competed.

A video of the final run is here.

The 'zero-energy-at-start' problem was tough as no previous MSU SECON team has had to work with solar panels. The team worked diligently since last August when their senior design class started. The team arrived in North Carolina on Thursday (Mar 18th) evening, and the team worked 24 hours straight from Friday AM to Saturday AM further tweaking their robot's performance to meet on-site challenges such as thicker-than-expected carpet, and weaker-than-expected charging lights. These on-site variations caused serious problems for many teams, but these types of variations are typical in most hardware competitions and are to be expected.

Previous SECON Hardware Competitions

The team upheld a proud tradition of MSU doing well in this competition. Since 2003, MSU teams have finished in the top three positions six out of eight years.

2003 – 1st, 2005 – 1st, 2006 – 3rd, 2007 – 1st, 2008 – 2nd, 2010 – 3rd

We believe that this consistently high performance is due to a combination of factors:

    • A hardware intensive introductory microprocessors course that features hands-on interfacing with a microcontroller, using a bag-of-parts approach that forces the student to bring a microcontroller system to life from scratch. This gives the student the confidence to build custom solutions later on, which is typically required in a SECON hardware competition. We currently use our PIC24 textbook for this course. In 2003, we began using the PIC16 family, moved to the PIC18 family in 2004, and then to the PIC24 family in 2008. We use Microchip microcontrollers because they have free development tools for students (MPLAB, C compilers), low cost programmers (PICKIT2/3), strong support for DIP packaging (important for student prototyping), and a wide family range.
    • Strong follow-on courses in embedded systems and robotics that some of the students on the team have taken or take during the project development.
    • Doing the SECON project as part of a two-semester senior design course, which starts in the fall, and concludes in the spring when the competition is held. This allows students to try out many different approaches to the problem and to converge on a good solution.
    • Having a PCB experience before the senior design course so that students can make a packaged robot that does not experience sporadic failures due to loose wiring. We do this in an electronics course that is a prerequisite to our senior design course, and so the students are PCB-competent when they enter senior design.
    • Strong ECE departmental support in terms of funding and dedicated space - Dr. Bryan Jones allows the SECON team to have a portion of his robotic lab space for building the robot over the two semesters, and the ECE department and sometimes external sponsors supply funds for project development.

The SECON hardware competition (or other IEEE Regional hardware competitions) is a good target for a senior design team, as it provides a problem specification that allows a team to explore multiple approaches for solving a problem.