How can rescuers safely reach survivors stranded after a natural disaster with emergency supplies until help can arrive? This scenario was one proposed by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers for its 2014-2015 Student Design Contest. In March, four seniors in the Frank R. Seaver College of Science and Engineering won the regional contest held at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
ASME’s challenge: build a remote-controlled robot that can safely transport a food payload—in this case rice—through an obstacle course of sand and water, while negotiating several large, irregular steps. The team whose robot can deliver the most rice—untainted by water or sand—the fastest while using the least energy possible takes home the ASME prize.
Mechanical engineering majors Mike Lynch, Jeffrey Mandrell, John Demarinis and Kyle Peerless worked on their robot for five months as a part of their senior capstone design class, under the direction of Professor Nader Saniei.
“We were the only team to successfully deliver a payload,” said Lynch, who headed the project.
Saniei credits not just his students’ excellent academic backgrounds for their victory, but their diligent research, management skills and ability to stay on a tight $1,500 budget.
“This contest isn’t about reinventing the wheel,” said Saniei. “Research and making good decisions is crucial. If you buy parts from overseas for instance, they may be cheaper, but they will take time to arrive. And that gives you less time to make revisions to your design.”
And revisions are crucial to success. Though the parameters of the contest seem simple enough, ASME threw in several curveballs to make the competition more challenging. For instance, the entire robot and its remote control must fit into a tiny 25- by 25- by 30-centimeter box.
In preparation for the event, the team constructed a replica of the obstacle course. Nerves were high heading into the UNLV event. Despite many successful practice runs, the team had yet to successfully complete a run while Saniei watched.
“Our joke was that it only failed when Prof. Saniei was watching,” said Lynch.
After months of tinkering, the team’s final design was an impressive treaded tank-like robot, with a 3-D printed chassis, capable of dragging itself, and its payload, up multiple steps at a furious pace—all powered by a battery the size of a matchbox.
The team won the competition by delivering 1.3 kilograms of rice—nearly 3 pounds—safely through the course in 86 seconds.
“This is an important accomplishment,” says Saniei. “I’m very proud of them.”
This was the first time a Loyola Marymount University team won first place in this competition since Saniei joined the university 11 years ago.
With their win at UNLV, the team moves on to the ASME design contest finals in Houston next November, to compete against other regional winners from around the world. Before then, however, the team still needs to write a 30-page report on their project to fulfill their senior study obligations.
“I’ll flunk them all if they don’t get me that paper soon,” joked Saniei.
The team is also preparing a documentary on the building of their robot, and will give a demonstration of how the machine operates to the rest of the college at the end of the semester.