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Virginia Tech team demonstrates state-of-the-art technology at global robotics competition

March 20, 2017

Team VICTOR
Virginia Tech's Team VICTOR celebrates during a portion of the Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge, held in Abu Dhabi.

Virginia Tech’s Team VICTOR competed against top universities in the international, inaugural Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge, held in Abu Dhabi March 16-18.

The $5 million competition aimed to catalyze the development of autonomous robotics. Virginia Tech’s Team VICTOR, housed in the Wendy and Norris E. Mitchell ’58 Robotics Laboratory, was one of 25 teams out of 143 applicants from around the world invited to compete, and one of 15 to be sponsored by Khalifa University, the competition organizer.

After three intensive days of competition, Team VICTOR ended with an eighth-place finish in the first challenge and a spot in the grand challenge competition of MBZIRC, where they were one of 14 teams with the opportunity to tackle several complex tasks at once.

“Now that we have demonstrated what our robots can do on a global stage, we are ready to transfer the technologies, especially to newly opening markets such as the robotic delivery business and the smart warehousing and manufacturing business,” said Tomonari Furukawa, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and advisor to Team VICTOR. “We plan to open source the drones and mobile manipulator, because at the end of the day, we always aim to create technology that may benefit society.”

Virginia Tech was one of four American teams to compete, and one of two American teams that chose to participate in all four challenges, which required the use of both aerial and ground vehicles:

  • Challenge 1: the team’s unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) had to locate, track and land on a moving vehicle
  • Challenge 2: the team’s unmanned ground vehicle (UGV) had to locate and reach a panel and physically operate a valve stem on the panel
  • Challenge 3: multiple UAVs had to collaboratively search, locate, track, pick up and place a set of static and moving objects
  • Grand challenge: complete all of the above at the same time

Team VICTOR fully designed their vehicles for the competition, including five unmanned aerial vehicles, nicknamed Bogey 1 through Bogey 5, and an unmanned ground vehicle nicknamed TREX.

“This was a great learning experience for all of us. Very few members of our team had robotics experience prior to this project but we were able to complete the challenge by working together,” said Jonathan Hodges, a doctoral student studying mechanical engineering. “Personally, seeing other teams compete and discussing their solutions helped me gain a greater understanding of the current state of robotics research.”

MBZIRC aimed to test the limits of autonomous robotics to inspire further development in the rapidly growing field. The technology demonstrated at the competition could be used in services like autonomous delivery, warehouse and industrial automation, improved search-and-rescue missions, transportation, and navigation.

The competition allowed for international collaboration and discussion, both before and during competition, where teams would swap tips, advice, and tools. Team VICTOR formed a partnership with University of Technology, Sydney last year to bring in their expertise in autonomous systems.

As part of the collaboration, UTS sent Janindu Arukgoda, a master’s student studying autonomous systems and robotics in UTS’ Centre for Autonomous Systems, to Virginia Tech in November 2016. Following the competition, Arukgoda returned to Australia.

“It has been an interesting period of time for me personally, working with experts from multiple domains, sharing knowledge, and learning from each other,” Arukgoda said. “This exposure gave me insight into the life and likes of American postgraduate students, and so many Hokies went out of their way to make me feel at home in Blacksburg.”

Team VICTOR was able to acquire the necessary equipment and travel to Abu Dhabi through sponsorships from MBZIRC competition organizer Khalifa University, Yoshimitsu Saito of NetSmile, the General Motors Foundation, and Virginia Tech.

Virginia Tech alumni and spouses Adam Rossi, a civil engineering major, and Laila Rossi, a business major, also contributed to the team on behalf of their venture capital and private equity company, Indie. The Rossis, also graduates of Pamplin College of Business’ M.B.A. program, attended the competition with their three children.

Through the sponsorships, ten graduate students were able to attend the competition abroad. In total, Team VICTOR was composed of about 20 people, including graduate students from mechanical, industrial and systems, aerospace and ocean, and electrical and computer engineering, and three undergraduate students from industrial and systems engineering and mechanical engineering. Additionally, the team collaborated directly with companies JENSEN HUGHES Inc. and Cowden Technologies LLC.

“I have had a great experience working with this dynamic and diverse team. Being a part of the team from the beginning, I have seen the robots getting built, broken and run,” said Urvi Desai, a master’s student studying electrical engineering who attended the competition in Abu Dhabi. “Being a part of this journey and watching some of the best robotic minds demonstrate their technology is going to be a lifelong memory.”

Written by Erica Corder

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