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Robotic window washer climbs to the top for title

Sunday, March 30, 2008 | 6:56 p.m. CDT; updated 4:01 p.m. CDT, Tuesday, July 22, 2008
Judges for the robotic window washing competition at MU study how many dots were cleaned from a window after one of the college teams tested its robot.

COLUMBIA — As Frank Jr. finished washing the bottom pane of his window, he pulled himself onto the upper pane, drawing gasps, “wows” and applause from the audience.

Frank Jr. is a robot; more specifically, he’s the robot that won best robotic window washer in the student design competition of the 2008 American Society of Mechanical Engineers’ Student Professional Development Conference, held this year by MU’s student chapter. About 100 people came to see robots from nine teams and seven universities compete Saturday at Ellis Auditorium. The winning teams were announced Sunday.

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Mark Cihlar, Brad Howard, Nate Kroodsma and Andy Timmons, seniors from Michigan Technological University in Houghton, said Frank Jr. gave a “surprising” performance on Saturday.

The team had been using a completely different design for one and a half semesters before finding out Tuesday that their design would not work. However, the team put in a lot of late hours to build a new robot using their “plan B.”

“The fact that we had worked together so long helped us know each other’s strengths,” Cihlar said.

The four were able to compete Saturday after finishing the program the morning of the competition.

“We were really surprised right after we did our run that everything worked as it did, so we’re still really surprised right now,” Kroodsma said after learning the results of the competition.

“We thought it was gonna be a really tough competition — and it was,” Kroodsma said. “There were some really good teams. We saw some really great robots out there.”

According to contest rules, teams were supposed to build a robot that would wash the outside of a residential window without any human intervention beyond attaching the robot to the lowest window pane and turning it on manually or using a remote control. The robot had to travel over the window and remove dots made by a dry erase marker.

“This year’s competition was probably one of the most difficult I’ve seen in a while, and the students did a great job, all of ‘em,” head judge George Lucas said.

He also said that although there have been a number of robotic competitions in the past, this is the first time the robots had to climb a vertical window and clean it. Another difficult aspect was the fact that the robots needed to know what to do and make decisions on their own in order for their teams to receive bonus points.

As the winners, Frank Jr. and his team will be going to nationals in Boston this fall.

Although 15 teams from 11 universities were registered, only nine competed Saturday, partially because not all of the teams, including the team from MU, finished on time, said Brian Doerhoff, ASME member and MU senior. One team was disqualified before the competition for its robot’s weight.

Doerhoff said while the competitors were pleased overall with how they did in the competition, some ended up a little disappointed because their robots did not perform.

“It seems that some of the robots got stage fright,” Doerhoff said.

For North Dakota State University seniors Steve Hoepfner, Dusty Gagner and Ken Kuisle, this might have been the case. During the last three days before the competition, the team had to deal with a motor that went down, broken components, a power outage, programming complications and a leaky tank.

On Saturday, the upper suction cup of their robot would not stick to the window, causing the robot to fall off.

Hoepfner said the experience was a lesson in perseverance to get something to work. He also said he learned the need for improvement after a first design and why it takes so long for a company to release a new product.

Ahmed Khattab, one of the competition’s judges, said he thought the competition was great and said he was very impressed. He said he saw really bright and enthusiastic students.

“Some of these projects are really good, and maybe you can see some in the future,” Khattab said.


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