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Robot revolution

FLC engineering students see the future in automated, electrical wonders

At Fort Lewis College, a robot can find the coffee shop, without GPS directions.

While a coffee-bot might sound like your new best friend, it’s just practice for engineering students, who programed a turtlebot – made, in part, from a Roomba vacuum, a laptop and Xbox sensor and camera– to find the shop.

The end goal for students is to successfully program robots to gather data about the environment autonomously, said Ryan Smith, an assistant professor of engineering and a researcher in aquatic robotics.

The robots at FLC, designed to float, fly and roll, can help paint a picture of the health of an ecosystem over a long period of time, Smith said. In addition to avoiding obstacles on their own.

For example, Smith is planning to start using a small autonomous boat next week to start monitoring the quality of the city’s water supply at Roger’s Reservoir and map the bottom of the lake. It will become an ongoing project for his students.

On a much larger scale, he uses similar technology to monitor the effect of pollution off the coast of California, and one of his students, David Heermance, took a very small robot to Drexel University in Pennsylvania to sample simulated ocean flows.

But closer to home, at the reservoir, the robot’s autonomous sampling could help the city reservoir function more efficiently.

When the reservoir first was built, the lake’s depth was not well-documented. Since then it has changed as silt has built up, said Steve Salka, utilities director for the city of Durango.

Monitoring the reservoir on a continual basis also can show the city how it is changing by measuring factors such as the level of sediment and oxygen.

“Water is a dynamically changing environment – concentrations can be created and dissipate over a day, so we want to try to understand how things are changing over the day, week, month timeframe,” he said.

Understanding how much sediment is flowing into the reservoir also can help operators decide when to dredge it.

Work will start this summer, and in the fall it will be a senior capstone project for a team of about six students.

“We’re giving them a classroom. It’s a really good relationship between the city and the college,” Salka said.

Last year, seniors developed a HopKopter for sampling the environment, both in the air and on the ground. They built a geodesic dome with a gyroscope inside that was powered by a small quadcopter.

“They wanted to create a tumbleweed powered by wind or solar (power),” Smith said.

This initial concept turned into a HopKopter, which can roll across the ground or fly over obstacles, Smith said. They are unique in that most robots are designed to travel in only one way on land, in the air or through the water.

These projects help give the undergraduates a chance to apply their ideas, and the school wants to maintain these opportunities as the engineering department grows, said Mitch Davis, spokesman for the school.

“We want to keep a level of personal attention so every student can get their hands on stuff like this,” he said.

The school has seen engineering classes swell from about 15 to 20 students per class to about 60 to 70 per class in the last four years, Smith said.

“We’re not the only engineering department that’s growing in the U.S. They all are,” he said.

In fall 2016, the school will be formalizing four engineering concentrations: robotics, physics, thermal fluids and materials.

The school also is examining a computing degree to serve current industry in different departments, but the idea is in its infancy, Davis said.

These computing classes could be helpful for students working with Smith, who need to have a background in computer programming.

Engineering graduates already are in high demand, and 95 percent of engineering graduates from Fort Lewis find a job after college.

Robotics is a sector where there is a lot of growth and potential to find a job with well-known companies such as Google, Apple and iRobot.

“A lot of these common household names are fundamentally looking for engineers and specifically roboticists,” Smith said.


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