IMG_20160130_104100651_HDRIf you live in Minnesota, you know that January means sub-zero temperatures, lots of snow, and…outdoor get togethers.

Hold on – that doesn’t seem right! Yes, even in the dead of winter, Minnesotans choose to brave the weather and attend the annual Saint Paul Winter Carnival, featuring everything from ice sculpting to an autonomous snowplow competition.

In fact, this year marked the 6th consecutive year that the Autonomous Snowplow Competition has brought in student teams from colleges around the US and Canada to compete for the distinction of designing the best autonomous robotic snowplow. Keep reading to learn about our experience at the competition and check out the photo gallery!

As a sponsor of the event this year, several of us at SICK attended to show our support for the teams and see their autonomous snowplows in action. Luckily, this January has been unseasonably warm, and we were able to enjoy the competition on a practically tropical 30+ degree Sunday afternoon.

DSC_0344Many of the competing robots, including the 1st and 2nd place winning robots Yeti 6.0 (University of Michigan) and OTTO X (Case Western Reserve University), used SICK LIDAR (LMS) in their navigation systems to avoid obstacles and successfully remove the most snow from the walkway.

One of the local teams—from the GOFIRST Robotics student group at the University of Minnesota—gave us the scoop on what it was like to participate in this event with their robot, Ground Squirrel.  This year’s performance was an improvement over their first run last year, and they’re hoping to top their performance again next year with a brand new robot.

Check out our interview with the GOFIRST team’s project lead and UMN engineering student, Pratheeksha Mallikarjun.  (And watch the video of their Sunday run embedded below!)

Q: What inspired the members of GOFIRST to get involved with robotics at the U? 

A: Many members of GOFIRST are alumni of FIRST, a non-profit organization that runs robotics competitions for students in 3rd-12th grade.  Students who were involved with FIRST in high school often come to the U with an interest to continue their robotics hobby, and GOFIRST is an excellent opportunity to do this in a competitive and non-competitive environment.

GOFIRST also attracts college students who were never exposed to robotics prior to college by speaking to numerous introductory level engineering classes and exhibiting at activities fairs on campus with our robots. The group strives to have an open and inviting environment so that students at all skill levels feel welcome.

Q: How did GOFIRST get involved with the Autonomous Snowplow Competition?

A: We came upon the Autonomous Snowplow Competition by researching robotics competitions in the Twin Cities and were very excited about it because it was a local competition, and it seemed applicable to the real world, which provided the team with motivation to really learn and develop the skills needed to build and Autonomous Snowplow.

Q: How did you come up with idea for the Ground Squirrel?

A: Ground Squirrel is a robot that was initially built for GOFIRST’s participation in the AUVSI Intelligent Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC) several years ago.

Due to a limited budget, instead of building a new robot from scratch, the team chose to improve some of the subsystems of the machine and make the robot more mechanically aligned with the needs of an outdoor competition in the winter.  After this year's competition, the group is excited to build a brand new robot for next year's competition!

Q: What is different about your robot compared to last year?  How has it improved? 

A: The biggest improvement to this year's robot over last year is that GOFIRST started planning much earlier this year and was able to implement an entirely new shovel subsystem. We've mounted a more heavy duty shovel to the front of our robot at an angle (similar to how large snow plow truck have shovels at an angle) in the hopes that the angled design will assist with our snow clearing.

Q: Anything else you want to share about the experience preparing for and competing at the Autonomous Snowplow Competition? 

A: The Autonomous Snowplow Competition has been a great experience for GOFIRST. Many of our members have learned a lot about working with Robot Operating System (ROS) and improved their programming skills through working with ROS and with more advanced sensors.  Other members have also gained invaluable experience with the mechanical design process when we were redesigning our robot earlier this year.