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NaviGator The Defending Champion of RobotX

It's a Sunday morning in October at 7 a.m. and the sun is barely peeking over the University of Florida campus. Matt Griessler, a Masters student in Electrical Engineering, is already at the CIMAR garage where NaviGator, an autonomous robotic boat, is kept.

Matt is the Electrical lead on the team and dedicates 40 hours each week on the NaviGator project.

The NaviGator project started about three and a half years ago, and the current generation of NaviGator has been a work in progress since 2017. Usually, development work is done at the Machine Intelligence Lab (MIL), followed by regular testing days at Lake Wauburg. Testing days evaluate progress and are essential for the team, especially since they are headed for competition during December 2018 in Hawaii.

RobotX is an autonomous maritime boat challenge that takes place in open, but protected, ocean at competition sites around the world. The competition was created in 2014 and takes place every two years. Teams from around the world compete against each other with boats they designed and programmed to be fully autonomous. Team NaviGator participated in 2016 and won. They will defend their champion title this year.

More students slowly start to appear and begin to help Matt clear the way for NaviGator. Hauling the large robotic boat out of the garage is no easy task. It takes several students to push an autonomous car and move equipment to maneuver the boat out on its dolly. Meanwhile, there are other students filling up the CIMAR trailer with field testing objects. Once NaviGator is secured to a truck and the trailer is locked up, the team makes its way to Lake Wauburg.

Team NaviGator is comprised of 25 students, about five of which are graduate students. There is one faculty member who is in charge of the lab as well as an advisory board of two to four faculty. Student and faculty majors include computer science, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer engineering.

The CIMAR trailer and the truck with NaviGator park by a private ramp at the end of Lake Wauburg. It takes a while for the students to unload their equipment and get the trailer set up. They unpack an assortment of buoys, anchors, walkie talkies, and signs. The software team sets up their computers on the folding desk in the trailer.

Employees from Lake Wauburg come to the testing site in their motor boat to give Matt and Kip, a mechanical engineer, a lift out to the water to set up the buoys and starting gate.
There is also a kayak on hand to tow the larger field elements. Next, it is time to set the boat in the water.

Once again, it takes a small group of students to place NaviGator in the lake. Now it is time to begin testing.

Preparation for the upcoming competition started in 2017. It is a process that requires the work of several teams. The software team has to write new software to accomplish different tasks and make improvements on current tasks. The mechanical team is rebuilding/redesigning parts of the robot and adding new elements for the upcoming competition. The electrical team is also improving the robot by fixing hardware issues.

Each team uses their own set of “tools.” Mechanical uses a CAD software called SolidWorks and machining tools to realize their designs. Electrical also uses CAD software called Altium to design circuit boards. They use soldering equipment to assemble a board and other tools to test it. The software team uses ROS, a robot software framework which NaviGator operates on.
Team NaviGator tests the autonomous code, runs missions to identify problems, and performs manual testing. This means that the boat will be manually driven and small autonomous functions will be tested.
To be autonomous means the robot is not controlled by a human during its operations. Once someone presses the “go” button on their computer, the robot goes off to make decisions and accomplish tasks by itself.
The robots/machines that MIL creates are fully autonomous and use autonomous decision making, which is a form of machine intelligence. Most of the tasks are perception related.

Working on such a high profile project has its challenges. Matt has five and a half years of experience in MIL and noted some challenges of working on a team. Communication gets harder as the team grows and keeping everyone on the same page is a challenge. One must consider how information is passed around; is an email or in-person meeting more efficient? As for the boat, the most complex part is the software system. This is the biggest challenge during competition.

Looking ahead, Team NaviGator hopes to remain the champion of RobotX. The week long competition can be thought of as a very long test day but with scored results. The first day is spent unpacking the boat and putting it together. Then there are four days of testing. Semi-final rounds follow to qualify for finals.

For those who are interested in robotics, whether as a student or teacher, there are some schools that provide a robotics club. If not, there are robotics programs such as FIRST Robotics. There is also the option to order a robotics kit online and experiment at home.

About the Author

My name is Mary Grace. I am about to graduate with a degree in Agricultural Education and Communication. My career goal is to produce videos and create graphic designs.

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