A team from the University of Minnesota’s GOFIRST Robotics student organization competed in the 6th annual ION Autonomous Snowplow Competition on January 28-31 as part of the Saint Paul Winter Carnival. The team finished eighth overall—the highest a team from the U of M has ever placed at this event.
The competition challenges participants to design, build, and operate a fully autonomous snowplow that can remove snow from a designated area in a set amount of time. This year, 11 robots from 8 colleges and universities across the U.S. and Canada participated in the contest.
The U of M’s entry, a robot named Ground Squirrel, features two-wheel drive, a caster for steering, and a camera equipped with a LIDAR sensor for vision tracking and navigation.
The robot was initially built several years ago for the AUVSI Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition in Michigan. It competed in its first Autonomous Snowplow Competition in 2015, where the team received the Golden Snowplow Award for best student presentation. This year, the team focused on improving the robot’s shovel mechanism and addressing issues with the vehicle’s GPS and compass.
“We’ve mounted a more heavy-duty shovel to the front of our robot at an angle, similar to a large snowplow truck, in the hopes that the angled design will assist with our snow clearing,” says Pratheeksha Mallikarjun, U of M team member and GOFIRST president.
Next year, the GOFIRST team plans to build an entirely new robot for the contest, Mallikarjun says. The team also hopes to find corporate sponsors to help with material or sensor donations for the new vehicle, she adds, since the student group has limited funding to purchase high-quality components.
“The competition has been a great experience for GOFIRST,” Mallikarjun says. It has given students the opportunity to use the Robot Operating System (ROS), improve their programming skills, work with advanced sensors, and get hands-on experience with the mechanical design process. “[But] the best part…has been the increased recognition and publicity GOFIRST has had within the College of Science and Engineering and U of M communities leading up to the competition.”