A decade in the lead: The SIU robotics team’s history of victories


Brian Munoz | @BrianMMunoz

Nate Johnson, a junior studying electrical engineering from Abingdon, poses for a portrait alongside Lincoln Kinley, a junior studying electrical and computer engineering from Springfield, Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2017, in the industrial processes lab in the Engineering Building. The SIU Robotics team was the champion at the Association of Technology, Management, and Applied Engineering 2017 conference robotics competition with its robot, “Winston,” named after ex-Carbondale bagel-man Winston Mezo. (Brian Muñoz | @BrianMMunoz)

By Amelia Blakely

Ten years ago, when the university’s robotics team organized and entered in its first competition, they took second-to-last place.

“It really bruised the ego of the team 10 years ago, and they said this will never happen again,” Bruce Deruntz, the team’s coach, said.

Since that first defeat, Deruntz said the team has either won first or second place in every competition.


That streak continued in 2017; the team took first place in November with its robot, Winston.

“We wanted to pay homage to the bagel guy,” said Nate Johnson, the engineering manager of the team.

The team competed in Cincinnati at the Association of Technology, Management and Applied Engineering’s robotics contest from Nov. 1 to Nov. 3.

Johnson, a junior from Abingdon studying electrical engineering, said SIU was competing against large universities such as Iowa State University, Mississippi State University, East Carolina University, Eastern Illinois University, Ohio University and Ohio Northern University.

Lincoln Kinley, a junior from Springfield studying electrical and computer engineering, and the team’s software manager, said the competition had two phases. The first one involved Winston collecting hacky sacks from an obstacle course. In the second phase, Kinley said Winston used those hacky sacks to play cornhole before following a line of electrical tape to a PVC pipe where he deposited the hacky sacks.

Winston was made with a 25-pound arm, which extended to drop the hacky sacks in the cornhole instead of throwing them. His infrared sensors detected the electrical tape and the pipe where the hacky sacks ended up. With these additions, Kinley said Winston can move and complete obstacles while on auto-mode.


Johnson said a new robot is built for every competition. Although it’s cost-effective to reuse a robot, he said it’s harder to adapt the robot to a different set of obstacles each time.

“Imagine trying to rig together, like, a Toyota Camry to haul lumber,” Johnson said.

Recreating the obstacle course the robot will face in competition is the key to success, Deruntz said.

“These guys make sure in advance [the robot] can do the obstacle course or they scrap the whole thing and start all over,” Deruntz said. “Most teams don’t have the discipline to do that.”

Winston’s cost a little under $800 to build, Johnson said. The team also has to pay for registration fees for the competitions and travel expenses, which is achieved through a combination of fundraising and Undergraduate Student Government appropriations.

DeRuntz said unlike other robotics teams he has seen, SIU’s team prioritizes building the team before building the robot. They are a tight-knit group, he said, and no one leaves the workshop until the day’s work is over.

“That’s what helped lead to their success,” DeRuntz said.

Johnson said building robots was something he always knew he wanted to try in college, but Kinley said he was worried it would be boring at first.

“But then I got here and I was like, ‘Wow, this is really cool,’” Kinley said.

Both team members said in the future, they expect to see an increase in consumer and industrial robots.

After recently completing an internship in an autoplant, Johnson said he saw automation becoming more of the norm because robots are cheaper and do more consistent work.

“It starts with the most mundane, repetitive things and then it gets more complex from there,” Johnson said.

Next semester, Kinley said the robotics team will be entering two competitions as two teams.

The teams will be competing in the Midwest Robotics Design Competition and RoboBrawl, a combat competition. Both events are on March 22 at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Staff writer Amelia Blakely can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @AmeilaBlakely.

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