Redbird Robotics team lands second place in the International Aerial Robotics Competition

October 27, 2017

redbirdRobotics_4A recent addition to the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Redbird Robotics team hit the ground running. Forming in January of 2017, their goal was to participate in the International Aerial Robotics Competition scheduled for late July this past summer. Led by Alexander Rickert and Alex Bennett, the team not only achieved their goals, but placed second in the competition, all while largely finding their own funding.

Both Rickert and Bennett are seniors in ECE, having each nearing the end of their tenure at the Speed School. Redbird Robotics is a passion project for them, a place where they can collaborate on robotics, while team building and learning about project management.

Having participated on robotics teams before, Bennett was underwhelmed by their annual meet, the Southeast Conference Hardware Competition sponsored by the IEEE. After several matches, Bennett realized that the rules are nebulous from year to year, which he frustrated his efforts of a steady challenge. He used that inconsistency as the motivation to help found the team.

Preparing to Launch
Formerly a member of the River City Rocketry team, Bennett has built on his previous experiences to build the kind of team he wants to see in the university. He says, “We’re much more goal oriented. We set our sights on something long term, rather than working on small projects. We’re a lot more multidisciplinary. We try to be more high profile. We set ourselves up to be like the Rocket Team. I took what I learned there and AR and I put our heads together to start this.”

redbirdRobotics_3Largely internally funded through donor submissions, Rickert used his industry connections acquired through his co-op experience to launch his initiative.

He explains, “I actually made a small team, and we went out to local businesses to get funding. Part of my speil was to say that ‘hey we’re a small team, and you could fund a local talent pool. The students on this team are studying robotics and working in the field.’ That actually got us quite a bit of attention from companies, especially from MHS. Some of the other companies were really big on that idea.”


Challengers of the Unknown
As part of the IARC, the participants are tasked with finding solutions to real world problems. The idea is to find pragmatic solutions to problems that have yet redbirdRobotics_2to be demonstrated by government or industrial means with the intent of employing these results when possible. In this case, the team was tasked with developing drone technology that can navigate autonomously through what has evolved into cluttered air space.

Rickert explains, “We have an arena that is 20 x 20 meters with a grid pattern laid over it. They use refurbished roombas that have completely randomized movement. Our autonomous quad-copter, which we named Corvus, has to interact with the device to herd them.”

To accomplish that, the team had to find practical and affordable solutions that did not include GPS as a tracking tool. Using a lidar laser and an optical flow camera, the drone was able to demonstrate an ability to hover in a fixed position, as well as sort accordingly. As an added reward, the team owns their own creation, meaning that what they’ve developed is theirs to continue to build on.  

Bennett adds that while success is an option, that there is a certain expectation on a return on investment. He explains, “ It’s specifically stated in the IARC rules that the intellectual property is owned by the teams. Some high profile teams though, they are expecting some kind of turn out. We set out to get students prepared for that. I think they expect to get something out of it.”

The Future of Redbird Robotics
Bennett and Rickert want to see their legacy continue on after they graduate, both with the goal of continuing their work in the field of robotics professionally. As such, they have already begun work to maintain continuity during their transition out school, to new leadership.

Rickert says, “We really want to grow Redbird into something really stable. I want to see Redbird compete in not just one competition, but multiple. Say you have engineers that are into submersibles, I’d like to see them get into that. I’d like to have a very stable team and that grows every year.”

He adds,  “The training that I’m taking on, her name is Danielle Hardy, she’s taking on all the contacts I have at UofL. What contacts I’ve made at other companies, what to talk about. Hopefully we’ll get some other people on that can take the finance aspect. It stands us apart from other teams that rely only on the school. This is as real as it gets.”

Bennett continues, “We build cool stuff. We’re taking problems that haven’t been solved by the government or the IEEE and building solutions. I guess if you could say that Redbird has a mission statement, we’re trying to further robotics at UofL, and provide a space for students at UofL to apply their skills.”