Robotics Team Reaches For Ping-Pong Prize

By Austin Flynn

Some robots are built for exploration, some for entertainment and others for power.

For an engineering Registered Student Organization on campus, however, one robot was built for redemption.

After a year break from competition, the Association of Technology, Management and Applied Engineering RSO is determined to make a name for itself as well as the school today in this year’s national robotics competition in Nashville, Tenn., said Dylan Noble, a senior from Anna studying electrical and computer engineering and RSO president.


“If we’re able to do well in this competition, I feel like I will have helped improve SIU’s status and hopefully get more engineers to decide to come to the school itself,” Noble said. “I’m just excited about being in competition this year to show off what my team was able to accomplish.”

ATMAE is an RSO devoted to industrial technology, but it is also a nationwide organization with the same principles. The group holds a national competition every year for any school with the engineering RSO to enter. Each competition’s goal is usually different, Noble said, but it always requires teams to perform a specified task the quickest and most accurately.

Although last year’s competition had about 10 participants, Noble said 30 teams could be present this year.

Teams will compete with the same assignment this year as the 2011 event, which is to build a robot that can collect colored pingpong balls and sort them accordingly the fastest.

Isaac Etheridge, a senior from Mill Shoals studying electrical engineering technology and RSO member, said this year’s assignment didn’t change from last year’s because the 2011 teams performed below expectations. Etheridge said he attended ATMAE last year and helped the team build a robot this year that avoided the previous projects’ failures and personally created some of the inner workings of the machine.

“When you look at the footage of the old robots, there are very big design flaws in the ones we looked at,” he said. “I tried to make sure we didn’t make any of the mistakes that other people have made in the past.”

Michael Uphoff, a senior from Monticello studying industrial technology and RSO vice president, also attended last year’s competition and said the team’s robot this year closely resembles the one Northern Iowa used in 2011’s competition but with some design improvements.

Although the team may face a disadvantage because it didn’t compete last year, Uphoff said any group that missed last year’s competition will get an extra chance for its robot to collect and sort the pingpong balls.

He said the RSO had a 12-member team work on the robot, and testing started Sunday to ensure each aspect ran smoothly.

The robot’s name is Derecho, named after the natural phenomenon of an inland hurricane, Uphoff said, because the machine literally takes in balls with a movable arm and blows each individual colored pingpong ball into a corresponding container.

Derecho can be manually controlled with a joystick normally implemented in computers, but will have to automatically find its way to the pingpong balls in the competition.

Although a project like Derecho can be expensive, he said the robot only cost the group $500 because members salvaged parts from former machines and mapped out the design with available software on engineering building computers.

The RSO has performed well in past competitions, Noble said, as it took second place two years ago and first place three years ago.

Uphoff said the team is in high spirits and is confident as it heads into competition.

Tyler Winkleman, a freshman from Carmi studying computer science and one of Derecho’s programmers, said even though it’s his first year with the team, he has experienced a lot in his 100-200 hours with the project this semester.

“We get down to business, but we also have fun,” he said. “It’s been really cool to actually get to help on a big project and go to a national convention. I think we have a good chance of winning this thing.”

Uphoff said the project has been tough to accomplish at times, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It’s not worth it unless it’s a stretch for us, but we’re confident in our abilities and we know we’ve spent a lot of hours on this robot,” he said.

Despite everything, Uphoff said one thought is constant in each team member’s mind: reclaiming the trophy.

“It’s been a couple of years since we’ve had that national champion robot, and I’m really excited to bring that back to SIU,” he said.