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Robotics Society Navigates Uncharted Courses

October 3, 2012

Sometimes, all you need is a little push, even if it comes from a mechanical arm.

That was the case with the UC Merced Robotics Society, which began in 2008 but languished after its founders graduated. This past year, though, the club’s newer members got a jump start from dedicated leadership and the programming and creativity of one of their colleagues.

In his spare time, Nathaniel Lewis, a computer science and engineering student from Dublin, designed and programmed an autonomously-functioning robot that competed at the national RoboGames competition in April in San Jose.

“Nathan's awesome programming skills made most of what we did last semester possible,” said Cesar Gamez, a mechanical engineering major from Sacramento. “Nathan has much experience in programming and robotics, so he was the go-to guy for what we needed and what needed to get done.”

Club members like Gamez, John Rice, club President Emery Nolasco, Christopher Bush and Sean Rider helped build the “bot,” and the experience of working together toward a common goal reinvigorated the club.

Though they only had a few weeks to finish the project and no lab space, they took the robot to Gamez’s garage, blasted some music and powered through, Nolasco said.

Lewis’s robot was designed around a radio-controlled truck. Programming the computer guidance system took enough time that the robot wasn’t finished until a day before the competition. But the team completed the project without faculty assistance.

“We wanted to do something that no class here will ever let you do,” Lewis said. “The project let us see more of the process of designing a robot. It’s also a great way to bring people with hobbies in mechanics, electronics and computer science together.”

The team had mixed results at the competition. The robot, dubbed Kybernetes (Greek for navigator), completed part of the course but did not cross the finish line. Still, the group placed seventh out of 17 in the event — a navigational challenge dubbed RoboMagellan. RoboMagellan is one of the most demanding events at the annual RoboGames. The event emphasizes autonomous travel through a landscape — the kind of abilities engineers need for Mars rovers like Curiosity, which landed this summer, and other robot explorers.

Though most of the club’s members are mechanical engineering students, some are in computer science and some are studying physics, as well, Nolasco said. They all have something to contribute, and they learn from each other.

Gamez said he wants to shadow a programmer so he can strengthen his skills, while others say they are looking forward to completing more projects together.

They all want to make sure the club thrives, and are recruiting new members.

“I want to make sure that the group continues to grow and is a community for people with a love for or interest in robotics,” Nolasco said. “The people are great to work with and we get to apply what we learn in school to real life projects. We apply our theories instead of just knowing them.”

Robotics Society members say they are looking forward to RoboGames and other competitions next year.

“Everything was happening so fast, but we managed to pull it all together and make it to the competition,” Lewis said. “Now that we have done a project together, we can do more. The experience has prepared us for next year.”