Pellissippi State robotics team places in top eight

The student robotics team from Pellissippi State Technical Community College recently went head to head with the big guys and came away in the top eight in regional competition.

The LUNAtics, a team of six electrical engineering technology students, faced off in a robotics competition with teams from 40 other schools, most of them four-year colleges and universities. The face-off took place at the IEEE SoutheastCon Robot Competition on April 4-5 in Huntsville, Ala.

IEEE (Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc.) is the world’s leading professional association for the advancement of technology.

Alec Burkle, Mansour Fall, Rick Gonyea, Aaron Kesterson, Bob Patt and Chris McAbee entered in competition a 10-x-10-x-11-inch robot the team had created from scratch. Each school had to build a robot that could “see.” The robot then had to pick up wooden blocks off a smooth, sandy and gravelly 6-x-6-foot “lunar” surface.

Students had to decide how to make their robot see by using infrared sensors, cameras, sonar or a combination of the three. The LUNAtics used sonar technology.

The team took fourth place in the design presentation and placed in the top eight teams overall in the robotic hardware competition. The Pellissippi State students beat out many four-year schools, including the VOL-TRON team from UT-Knoxville and the Spacehawks of UT-Martin.

Pellissippi State was one of only three community colleges in the competition, and the only two-year school that made it to the playoffs.

“The robot runs on a computer program that the students wrote,” said Carl Mallette, an EET instructor and IEEE advisor at Pellissippi State.

Mallette, along with Kenneth Swayne, EET program coordinator, accompanied the students to the competition. Michelle Emens wasn’t able to attend, but she was part of the team and also designed the team T-shirt that was judged at the competition.

“It was a fantastic trip,” Mallette said. “The students had a great time and learned a lot. After all the different techniques the students tried to solve the problem, it was interesting to see how the other schools attempted to solve it.”

“It was stressful,” said Chris McAbee, team leader and IEEE student chapter chair. “The first run we got a good score. The second run, we got a low score, because the robot got stuck on the rocks. We were afraid we wouldn’t make the final eight.” To correct the problem, the team went to a local hobby store and bought bigger tires, he says.

“A lot of schools got stuck on the rocks, and one school’s robot flipped over,” McAbee said.

“It was a lot of hard work that paid off,” said Alec Burkle, the team member who presented the design to the judges. “It was a very extensive troubleshooting experience.”

“It’s exciting to see the students take ownership of a project of this magnitude,” said Swayne. “This is the second year in a row that the Pellissippi State students have placed in the final eight, which helps promote the technical programs at our college. We are doing good things at Pellissippi State, and it is my hope that prospective EE or EET students will take notice and enroll in one of our academic programs.”

The other schools in the top eight were Mississippi State University, the University of Florida, the University of Louisville, the University of Alabama-Birmingham, Tennessee Technological University, The Citadel and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The University of Alabama-Birmingham won the competition.

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