Students in ECE's embedded systems capstone design course (ECE 4534) work on projects that change every semester to keep pace with current technologies. Starting in Fall 2012, students work with a new platform: a four-wheeled vehicle similar to the remote controlled cars many students raced as children. These ECE 4534 rovers, however, become fully autonomous vehicles that must speed through a course and perform different tasks.
The basic project for Fall 2012 was to add intelligence to a rover that could locate a cube placed somewhere in the room. Student teams would design their cube, and their vehicle had to identify and locate it in a room filled with similar cubes.
This semester, high-speed navigation through a set course is the challenge. "It's not a maze," explains course supervisor Mark Jones, "but they have to go through the course fast and without hitting the walls." The first lap allows the vehicle to map the course, and the second lap is about speed. Students then get to choose extra tasks, such as speed limit signs or finish lines that the rover must obey. "No two teams are doing the same thing," says Jones.
In previous years, students have worked on projects with model trains or smart houses. "The rover is certainly more entertaining," says Cameron Patterson, who is also teaching the course this semester. "You get to see the consequences of incorrect or incomplete code. The rover crashes into walls, doesn't start, or doesn't stop."
The students begin with a 4-wheeled vehicle that has motors and a very basic motor controller. They are also given an ARM processor that runs Free RTOS, a real time operating system for embedded systems. Students have to select sensors, write software, and integrate the software and hardware components.
According to Patterson, the course includes aspects of control systems, robotics, autonomous vehicles, and artificial intelligence. "I see it as a preview of what many of our students will be doing when they leave here," says Patterson. "It also exposes them to project management and team coordination."
The class is teamwork-oriented: teams of three or four students work together on a single rover. However, each student is responsible for a certain aspect of the project, and must prove that his or her individual portion works independently of the final design. "They have to convince us that their part works even when not connected to parts from other team members," explains Patterson. "It requires them to be creative. They can't demonstrate it with the real rover, so they have to invent a virtual rover of some sort."
According to Jones, communication is one of the best indicators of success in the class. "All students have their part to do, but if they aren't able to communicate what they are doing to everyone on the team, it's hard to put it all together," says Jones. "The teams that do the best are the teams that work well together."
Jones adds that although the final projects are fun, the goal of the class isn't the robot. "It's not about making the robot, it's about students learning how to approach the next design problem they face."