Video: Autonomous robots take to UNSW for navigation challenge

After six months of preparation, students from universities across Australia and New Zealand participated in the National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition Grand Final held at UNSW.
Written by Asha Barbaschow, Contributor

Last week, 22 student teams from universities across Australia and New Zealand took part in the National Instruments Autonomous Robotics Competition Grand Final at the University of New South Wales (UNSW).

The knockout competition focused on the theme of "transport and roll out", where each team's robot had to complete tasks such as navigating to a loading bay, collecting goods, heading to drop off zones, and avoiding both static and dynamic obstacles.

For the past six months, the teams had been building their robots using the National Instruments autonomous robotics development kit, which included the company's myRIO hardware and LabVIEW system design software.

UNSW's team Lab202 were the reigning 2014 champions, which meant they had the home-side advantage of hosting this year's competition. Lab202's team leader Fred Westling spoke with ZDNet about what is involved with preparing for an autonomous robotics competition.

Westling said the robotics "game" is released in March each year, when teams begin to build the robot, design the software, and get started on the programming. He said each team was then required to pass five milestone tasks set by National Instruments in order to make it to the live finals.

"National Instruments specified everything about the competition before we get here, so every team knows exactly what's going to happen; we already knew the dimensions of the track, and we knew enough to practice with it basically," he said.

"Each team had the opportunity to build its own replica field to practice with. We had to build our own boards to control motors and then write the firmware for those -- and it was all doable."

Some of the milestones included avoiding obstacles, driving in a straight line, and localisation, which meant the robots had to drive to a particular point on the field.

His fourth year involved in the competition, Westling is currently studying mechatronic engineering and computer science, which he said covers anything that moves on its own, such as robotics and autonomous systems.

"Once we get to a working prototype, we test it, keep testing it, and then we can fix any bugs we find. Usually we will build a robot, test it, figure out everything that's wrong with it, and build another one; this year we built two prototypes."

Westling said the technology used on these specific robots is optimised for indoor technology.

"We don't use any GPS, we don't use any long range sensors, but for things like navigating rooms, inside houses, it's perfect," he said.

"When these robots drive around they know exactly where they are and where they're going; this technology can be directly applied to household robotics -- things like a Roomba uses this sort of technology.

"Some of the technologies we use in these robots can be applied to image recognition, pattern recognition, and we can match faces, and 3D reconstructions of structures; as long as they know what the room they're in looks like they can know exactly where they are."

Next year, the competition should be heading to Adelaide as a result of a victory for the University of South Australia students. Swinburne University of Technology was the close runner up, and New Zealand's Victoria University of Wellington claimed third place. The top teams also took home a share of AU$4,500.

"The purpose of the competition is to have these university teams design and build robots that can then be used for other things," Westling said. "The people that are building these robots are going to be gaining skills that can then be applied in the future."

Westling does not know which career path his degree will take him down, but he said he wants to work with robotics, adding "I can imagine a lot of people here now one day designing self driving cars".

Matej Krajnc, managing director for National Instruments Oceania, said the competition not only helped students get hands-on experience, but also demonstrated the usefulness of robotics to the industry.

"Industries from mining, transport and logistics, to agriculture, and health care are starting to rely heavily on robotics, which emphasises the importance of inspiring a future in STEM related professions; science, technology, engineering and maths," Krajnc said.

"[The competition] gives students the opportunity to apply those skills to real-life situations, become system designers, and demonstrate the many ways in which robots can drive gains for industry."

STEM education is currently at the forefront of political debate in the country; last Monday, Federal Opposition Leader Bill Shorten extended his "jobs of the future" commitment, pledging an additional AU$31 million in what he says will boost the quality of teaching and resources in the country's universities.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has long held an opinion on the importance of STEM education, saying the government believes it is important to invest in science, promote STEM education, and support startups.

"If we want to remain a prosperous, first-world economy with a generous social welfare safety net, we must be more competitive, we must be more productive. Above all, we must be more innovative," the prime minister said.

"We have to work more agilely, more innovatively, we have to be more nimble in the way we seize the enormous opportunities that are presented to us. We're not seeking to proof ourselves against the future. We are seeking to embrace it."

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