LTU students Phil Bigos and John Marnon have found that studying robotics engineering is a great way to see the world.
The two seniors recently returned from Sochi, Russia, where they finished fifth in the college division of the World Robot Olympiad (WRO). Teams from 50 countries competed this year, including 22 teams in the college division that was won by Taiwan.
In addition to an impressive showing, the two LTU students learned a lot about the world and met fellow robotics enthusiasts from almost every continent. That was especially true for the outgoing Bigos, who was easily recognizable in his American flag cape.
Many participants from other countries had their photo taken with Bigos, and more than 200 signed his cape. “Phil was the most popular guy there,” Marnon said.
Bigos practiced some basic Russian phrases in advance of the trip, which was a good idea because the Russians who ran the competition and the Olympic Village spoke virtually no English. It was a different story for almost all of contestants because they have taken English in school.
Bigos is now Facebook friends with students in many countries such as Tunisia, Peru, Russia, Taiwan, and Germany. He exchanged email addresses with other students and opened an Instagram account because that’s a popular way to communicate for students around the world.
“Everyone was super friendly,” Bigos said.
Some parents of WRO contestants were initially concerned about the political situation in Russia following the military takeover of the Crimean peninsula just a few hundred miles from Sochi, as well as the ongoing dispute over eastern Ukraine. The United States has imposed economic sanctions against Russia, and relations between the two countries are generally considered to be at the lowest ebb since the end of the Cold War 25 years ago.
At the same time, the United States has its fair share of international critics due to its military activity in the Middle East.
Bigos was advised not to wear his American cape on the streets of Sochi, but there was no animosity inside the Olympic Village. “I didn’t see any political tensions,” he said. “At this event I realized that if kids ran all the governments there would be a lot less tension around the world.
All the kids would come together and make friends and then they wouldn’t want to fight.”
The trip to Sochi took 14 hours of flying time and 22 hours overall following a layover in Amsterdam. The eight-hour time difference meant that when Bigos and Marnon arrived at what was 2 a.m. in Detroit, the sun had already been up for several hours. “That really threw me off,” Marnon said.
Nevertheless, the LTU robotics engineering majors placed among the top eight teams that advanced to the final round. They were able to write the new code and make adjustments to their robot’s sensors in response to the last-minute changes in the field of play and other conditions.
Another challenge they faced was the requirement to use LabView, a coding language that is initially easier to read and therefore popular, but is not the code they usually use and is also harder to use for complicated tasks, according to Bigos.
The college division competition was called “Mars Colony.” Two opposing robots competed on the field in opposite directions to harvest and deliver different colored balls that represented minerals to be delivered to factories on the surface of Mars. A team’s point total for deliveries made was modified by the time needed to complete the course.
Bigos and Marnon are on track to be the first two graduates of LTU’s bachelor’s degree program in robotics engineering, the first of its kind in Michigan and one of only a few in the entire country. Bigos was already familiar with Lawrence Tech because he began competing in LTU’s Robofest as an eighth grader. Marnon had participated in the First Robotics competition for two years and came to LTU to take courses in robotics engineering.
This is the first year that the United States competed at WRO. LTU Professor CJ Chung coordinated seven state tournaments and the national competition for selecting the teams to represent the USA, which was held at LTU.
Chung went to Sochi as the WRO-USA national organizer and also as the coach for the LTU team.
“Phil and John did a great job of representing the United States,” Chung said. “The level of competition was very high, and they responded well. It was also an opportunity to meet talented students from many countries, and they took full advantage of that.”
Sponsors for the LTU team included Cadillac, SoarTech, the Southeast Michigan IEEE EMC Society, and LEGO Education. Additional financial support for travel came from LTU’s College of Arts and Sciences and its Quest program, and the Department of Mathematics and Computer Science.
As the coach for the new LTU team, Chung supplied both hardware and software for the robot used in the WRO competition. Many of the parts came from the Robofest office. “It took countless hours to get together everything that was needed, and the generous support of our sponsors made the trip possible,” Chung said.
As the WRO-USA national organizer, Chung also provided support to the three other teams from Michigan and three teams from New York that attended the WRO in Sochi. He was instrumental in obtaining funding for travel and other expenses from Cadillac, Durr Systems Inc., the Michigan Economic Development Corp., the Northville Educational Foundation, Virtual EM Inc, DuPont, as well as many individual donors.
One of the Michigan team’s from Northville and Canton won the bronze medal in the elementary open division, and another team from the same towns finished fifth in its division.
The WRO has proven to be another way to demonstrate to students that STEM education – science, technology, engineering, and mathematics – can be fun. “Robotics is fun for these students because what they create actually comes alive. That’s what autonomous robotics is all about,” Chung said.
For more information on the WRO in Sochi, go to http://wro2014.org. For more information on WRO-USA, go to http://wroboto.us.