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The field of robotics is growing exponentially, if the numerous national and international competitions held every year among college students is any indication. And based on the results of recent contests, University of Rhode Island students are cornering the market on the design and construction of robotic cars and boats. In URI’s first-ever intelligent car competition entry last spring, a team of three computer engineering students took second place in a national competition to build an intelligent model car that can rapidly follow a circuitous route without any humans manning the controls.

Rhode Islanders Jillian Burgess and Ben Ricci, and Steve Norris of Massachusetts, all of whom graduated in May, entered the Freescale Cup as an alternative to traditional lab experiments and exams in their computer organization class. Provided with a model car kit, standard components, and a Freescale computer to drive the car, they engineered the vehicle and wrote computer programs and algorithms to enable the model to autonomously follow a black line on a track to the finish line. Their vehicle finished first in a timed race against teams from 16 other universities in the eastern United States, and then took second in a head-to-head competition against the winner of the western regional, the University of California at Berkeley. “We arrived, pushed go, and our car ran the whole course without a problem,” said Ricci, who aims for a career in robotics or embedded software. “I expected we would do well, but winning wasn’t even on my radar.”

The robotic vehicles the students raced in the Freescale Cup used a camera and sensors to “see” the black line on the track, then processed that data to make decisions about proper steering and speed. Once the students pushed a button to start the vehicle, they provided no additional input. “Most of it was a programming exercise, but our steering control algorithm was also really well written,” said Norris, who’s returning to URI for graduate school this fall. “We detected and reacted to turns better than the other teams. The other teams would constantly over-steer.”

The students’ success in the intelligent car competition came just two years after another team of URI students took first place in the International RoboBoat Competition, a contest to design a robotic boat that can race through an aquatic obstacle course without any human controls. They beat teams from the top engineering schools in the country, as well as some from as far away as Taiwan and Indonesia. URI teams have also placed among the top five every year in the International Autonomous Underwater Vehicle Competition, which challenges students to design and race a robotic submarine. In fact, URI won this competition in its very first try in 2000. The skills and technologies the students are learning and using in these competitions have given them a big boost in the job market. In fact, several students have even received job offers in the midst of the competitions from company representatives attending the events!

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