By Adam Stone
March 14, 2007
Colubris provided an access point to the FIRST Robotics club, giving a leg up to wireless-equipped competitors.
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When robots battle, Wi-Fi wins. What else is wireless connectivity for, after all, if you can’t use it to steer a 150-pound metal monster?
“This should give us a pretty significant advantage,” said Chris Jones, philanthropy chair for IIT FIRST Robotics, the robotics club at Illinois Institute of Technology.
The IIT FIRST competition took place March 9-10 in the 20th Annual AMD Jerry Sanders Creative Design Competition. Each year the contest invites engineering students to build robots that can chase hula hoops and manipulate Frisbees. Students compete for more than $5,000 in prizes.
This year the students of IIT FIRST sought an edge in the form of a Wi-Fi connection. Colubris Networks donated a Colubris WLAN Client Bridge 200 (WCB-200) to the IIT team, to wirelessly control and connect video feeds between robot and operator.
A video system gave the operator a view of the scene through the robot’s “eyes,” while real-time diagnostic data provided the driver a complete view of the robot’s internal systems.
The IIT robot gets busy once it enters the field to compete against three other teams. “We started with a frame as rigid as we could possibly get it. We put in four drive motors and we have a lifter design to lift the Frisbees out of their starting positions and then pick them up off the ground to score,” Jones said.
With all that bending and turning, any robot would likely endure some physical stresses. So the IIT FIRST team looked for a Wi-Fi solution that would be up to the physical challenge. “It had to robust,” Jones said, noting that the Colubris solution “is rated to take abuse seriously, and this robot is going to take abuse.”
Colubris scored high marks in this regard, as a firm whose solutions have always had robustness as a foremost goal.
Director of Solutions Vincent Ma noted a number of rough-and-tumble environments in which Colubris solutions have proven their stripes. Products have been used to conduct video surveillance in European subway trains. They link heartbeat monitors to nurses’ stations, monitor manufacturing processes on automobile assembly lines and help manage flight data on commercial aircraft.
“From ground one, we have designed this thing to make sure it is robust,” said Ma, who noted that Colubris controls the production not only of its Wi-Fi networks but also of its own hardware. By comparison, “with most Wi-Fi companies today they don’t design their own radio, they don’t design their hardware. As good as they are, they don’t have that end-to-end control of their solutions.”
The high-bandwidth connectivity may have given the IIT team an edge in terms of person-to-person communications. In addition to two people standing ringside, two more club members observed the action from the field, all wearing headsets to connect via wireless to the robot’s driver.
“That will be an edge,” Jones predicted. “Every team is only allowed to have two people on the field at a time, and normally they have to stand there yelling at each other.”
The contest itself meanwhile is a colorful affair, literally. Automated colored lights illuminate target platforms to show where objects must be dropped in order to score points. Colors shift randomly, with changes speeding up as each round progresses.
The IIT club already is laying plans for next year. Teams win double points if their robots can guide themselves, picking up Frisbees without taking orders from a driver. Team member can give the robot feedback, but they can’t steer. Already there are predictions of success.
“Next year we are planning on doing an entirely autonomous robot,” said Jones. He likely won’t be there to share in the triumph, however. An aerospace major, he is set to graduate this spring.