Robot cars excite and inspire at Race Day 2016

Posted on June 06, 2016

The Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering at the University of Pretoria (UP) held their fourth autonomous robot vehicle (ARV) race in the Amphitheatre on the Hatfield Campus on Monday, 30 May 2016. This much anticipated annual event is organised to showcase and celebrate the hard work and accomplishments of the University's Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering students, and the fact that the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year, made this year's race an extra special occasion.

The race involves small ARVs that are built by third year students as part of the Microcontrollers module (EMK 310) of their course. On Race Day, the students' ingenuity is put to the test when they compete against each other to see which team's ARV can complete a track made up of red, green and blue lines that zigzag across each other, in the shortest possible time. Students work in teams of up to four to develop ARVs that can detect the different coloured lines on the track and navigate through it. At the start of the project in February, there were 60 teams of students, but only 52 teams made it through to eventually compete and put their creations to the test on the big day.

ARVs such as the ones built by the students are able to 'read' the track that they are supposed to follow by means of a light sensor that beams down onto the track, from where it is reflected back onto the sensor. The sensors are programmed to follow the green line, but as many of the students who took part in Race Day can attest, this is often much easier said than done as some of the cars seem to have a 'mind', or maybe a colour preference, of their own. During the race, the ARVs have three minutes to move from one end of the track to the other, during which time they are closely monitored by track officials and picked up and moved back onto the green line if they lose their way.  

Although Race Day itself is mostly fun and games, the process of building the ARVs provides an excellent opportunity for students to integrate everything they have learnt in a practical way. Students are responsible for all facets pertaining to the design and construction of their cars, from writing, testing and implementing the firmware for the hardware that has been designed, to building the chassis of the vehicle itself. The sensor system that is responsible for detection of the multi-coloured track for example, is partly developed in the Analog Electronics module, which students take concurrently with the Microcontrollers module in the first semester of their third year.

In addition to the obvious benefits that this innovative project holds for current engineering students, the Department also invites teachers and prospective engineering students from neighbouring schools to attend the event every year. Learners who register online and attend Race Day are treated to a tour of the Department's facilities and also have the opportunity to engage with the students taking part in the race, who explain the design and development of the robot cars so that the learners know exactly what is happening when the race starts, and hopefully become inspired to enrol for degree courses in Electrical, Electronic or Computer Engineering in the future.

The idea for Race Day and the project behind it is the brain child of Prof Tania Hanekom, who has received several awards, including a 2015 UP Innovation and Excellence in Teaching Award, for the innovative teaching methods that she has helped to implement in the Department over the years. According to Prof Hanekom, her main teaching philosophy involves challenging students, as this has proven to be an effective strategy for the development of excellence, especially in engineering students who cannot resist a competition that requires the application of their technical ingenuity with the added prospect of achievement. A second foundational philosophy, she says, is that excellence fosters excellence: if one wants to nurture excellence in students, one must offer excellence in the teaching and learning strategy – one needs to set an example that students cannot resist following.

Through this innovative project, aspiring engineers are guided through a carefully planned process that assists in developing a fundamental set of engineering skills, which include hardware and software design, systems integration, the ability to work and function in a team, time management, perseverance, and the good old indispensable 'engineering gut feeling', which comes only with experience in the execution of engineering projects. The pride and exhilaration shown by the teams of students when they compete in the race with a system that they developed from first principles as part of a team are truly rewarding and inspiring to see.


- Author Ansa Heyl

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