First-Year Students Learn While Delivering the Goods

Thursday, March 18, 2021
Image shows two students working with a small robot as it delivers pizza.

In an introductory course, electrical and computer engineering students created robots that delivered slices of pizza (triangular blocks) autonomously or through remote control to a variety of customers unknown until the pickup time.

While being introduced to new elements within electrical and computer engineering, first-year students interested in those career fields dealt with an item with which they were quite familiar – pizza – in a robotics challenge that brought forth ingenuity, teamwork, and hands-on applications of future technology.

And, the project was ripe from today’s media headlines.

The final design competition for this winter’s Engineering Principles course called upon student teams to create robots that delivered slices of pizza to a variety of customers in a contact-free environment. The robot had no idea in advance where it would pick up the slice or which customer had made the order. Those instructions would come electronically from a central location inside the restaurant (a large playing field).

Once the pizza order was set into motion, the robot drove to pick up the slice (a triangular-shaped block) from the proper oven location and then navigated a route through different obstacles to make a successful delivery. Then, the robot would do it all over again to feed another customer.

“This design competition was meant to provide a fun avenue for our first-year students to apply what they’ve learned while building upon an educational experience together as a class,” said assistant professor Zak Estrada.

Extra credit was given if a portion of the delivery was made autonomously, instead of through human control by using wireless technology.

One team took the challenge even further. Its robot completed every step of the delivery process autonomously – a task rewarded with the most possible points. Making the achievement even more impressive was that team members Glody Mutebwa, Jason Su and Patrick Townsend didn’t master the technology until a day before the final competition.

“The key to our robot was its sensors,” stated Townsend, an electrical engineering major from Indian Head Park, Illinois. “Our robot utilized four individual sensors to constantly read the information about its surroundings, like a self-driving car. One sensor followed the white lines on the game board to and from the pickup location. Two other sensors were infrared sensors on the side of the robot, used to interpret when to turn and when to keep moving straight while dropping off the pizza. Then an ultrasonic sensor detected when the robot was at the wall of the drop off zone, triggering a release of the food (to the customer).”

Townsend continued, “Sensors are not perfect and they have occasional bad readings or errors. The biggest kink to work out was during the drop-off. We ran into the issue of the ultrasonic sensor missing its window to detect the wall, causing the robot to never release the food … We decided to remedy this problem by supplementing the sensor with a safety release. After adding this feature, the robot released the food at the correct spot close to 100 percent of the time, giving us full confidence that the robot was ready to compete autonomously.”

Another clever team, consisting of Ryan Egan, Elisa Simoni, and Eva Yin, had their robot slowing down while using a mathematical algorithm to navigate the difficult sharp right- or left-hand turns in the delivery route.

Meanwhile, Luke Dawdy, Noah Clippinger, and Gaven Williams also focused on optimizing the robot’s line-following algorithm, which contributed to consistent runs on the day of the competition.

“We had difficulty finding a balance between both speed and accuracy in the line-following portion of the competition. Ultimately, through multiple tests, we were able to strike a good balance that helped lead to our success,” said Williams, a computer engineering major from Mahomet, Illinois.

Another top team featured a robot created by Stuart Atkinson, Nicolas Gaither, and Zaizhou Zhang.

The Engineering Practice course introduces first-year students to engineering by having them apply basic electrical and computing concepts, design principles, and soft skills in a hands-on environment. It offers a design experience early in a student’s curriculum to encourage critical thinking and apply design thinking and problem-solving in other courses.

“We hope that they leave the course with a better understanding of what electrical and computer engineering is, what electrical and computer engineers do, and an appreciation for the collaborative environment of an engineering workplace,” said Estrada, who joined associate professor Daniel Chang in teaching the two course sections during the winter academic quarter.

The students enjoyed the opportunity to learn in a hands-on environment nearly every day in class, according to Williams. He said, “The robots were especially fun since we got to work together with our classmates on a longer-term project. The class introduces all kinds of subfields of electrical and computer engineering, which has been helpful in getting a sense of what kind of areas we find interesting and exciting.”

Meanwhile, Townsend observed, “The opportunity to implement a project like this during my second quarter of my first year at Rose was really exciting. One of the biggest takeaways for me was to always try to exceed expectations and not conform to the mindset of doing what’s easiest. There were extra points in the competition for doing steps autonomously. This was very telling about how to impress future teachers, supervisors, and employers by dedicating yourself to what you’re doing and working hard. Implementing a fully autonomous robot was not the easiest thing to do. However, the extra time we committed to our project ultimately paid off for our team.”