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What’s Winter Without a Robotic Snowplow?
snowplow
Here’s how robots begin the trek at becoming real-world products
By RBR Staff


With the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) now featuring pool and gutter cleaners, robotic vacuums and lawnmowers, what’s next? How about a robotic snowplow?

snowplow2

Ohio University’s “monocular autonomously controlled snowplow” might soon see a variant of itself parked in the Las Vegas Convention Center at a future CES. Are you listening John Deere?

TwinCities.com (Pioneer Press): The snowplow is small, but built like a tank. Weighing in at 600 pounds, Ohio University’s “monocular autonomously controlled snowplow” (also known as M.A.C.S.) features four-wheel drive, a laser guidance system and the ability to clear snow without a human operator.

The team from Ohio thinks M.A.C.S. can score a three-peat at this year’s Autonomous Snowplow Competition, being held through Sunday, Jan. 27, as part of the 2013 St. Paul Winter Carnival.

mcas

“Hopefully, we’ll press a button and it will do its thing,” said team coach and professor of electrical engineering Wouter Pelgrum.

In what has become the premier—albeit only—robotic snowplow competition in the world, teams build snowblower-sized snowplows that, once programmed, can clear a predetermined path of snow without any outside help

The event this year attracted eight teams from the Twin Cities and around the Midwest—including the Dunwoody College of Technology Snow Devils, the North Dakota State University Albino Bison and the Iowa State University SnowClone—as well as sponsors and recruiters from companies such as Honeywell, Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

Event organizer Suneel Sheikh of Shoreview-based aerospace research firm Aster Labs said the competition is meant to get engineering students into the “art and science of navigation,” as well as develop tools that eventually will be marketable. He said the Minnesota Department of Transportation is keeping an eye on the competition to see what develops

“Some of these technologies could eventually go into highway snowplows as heads-up displays for drivers, so they can see the edge of the road in blinding snow,” he said.

Sheikh said an autonomous lawnmower competition in Ohio, which last summer concluded a nine-year run, has led to two companies developing self-guided mowers for the consumer market.

The mowers became so advanced, they could avoid a flower bed placed randomly in their path and stop before running over a robotic dog that bounded onto the course.

“We’re considering a snow rabbit (for the snowplow competition),” Sheikh said. But that’s a few years down the road, he said.

Developing dependable, safe robotic plows

“Because they have to operate with people watching, they have to be extremely safe and drive no faster than someone can walk,” Sheikh said. “Eventually, it has to be able to detect an obstacle and turn itself off.”

Ohio University’s Pelgrum and his group of students hope to take home the Gold Snow Globe trophy Sunday after the plows complete their runs in front of the St. Paul Central Library.

“You never know how things can go wrong, you can’t anticipate the unforeseen,” he said.

Like last year, when every plow but Ohio’s got stuck trying to push the thick, slushy snow off the course. “We were the only team with four-wheel drive,” Pelgrum said.

Ph.D. candidate Kuangmin Li, who was on the winning team last year and worked to make the 2013 M.A.C.S. Ohio’s toughest yet.  Li said, “building the plow ahead of the competition was a great way to put course teachings into practice.”

“The stuff you learn in class is one thing, but to go out and test this system is another thing; by participating and building the robot, it actually tells me how this goes to the real world,” he said.


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