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Defending champions top opponents in robotics competition
Posted: 05/19/2008
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The robotics team at The University of Texas-Pan American proved they were "Bulletproof" as they upstaged their competition to remain the defending champs at the 2008 Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Region 5 Conference in Kansas City, Mo.

Pictured left to right are Viridiana Martinez, Marcos Ochoa and Marcelo Resendez, members of the winning UTPA robotics team, "BulletProof," with their robot "Escorpion."
For a second year in a row a team from the UTPA Student Branch of IEEE, an organization in the Department of Electrical Engineering, finished in first place on April 19 in the annual robotics competition held during the four-day conference. Members of the winning team, who called themselves "Bulletproof," included Marcelo Resendez of Reynosa, Mexico, Viridiana Martinez of Reynosa, Mexico, and Marcos Ochoa of PeƱitas, Texas, all of whom are recent UTPA electrical engineering graduates.

"We were determined to demonstrate that our students have been trained to become excellent electrical engineers who are capable of defending the robotics championship," Dr. Mounir Ben Ghalia, electrical engineering associate professor at UTPA and IEEE technical adviser, said. "In a way, winning first place two years in row has meant that our first win was not random luck, but a winning trend that we are determined to keep."

The championship team, who won for their robot named "Escorpion," competed against 30 other university teams from across the central United States. This was the fourth time that a UTPA team had participated in the robotics competition.

Ben Ghalia said the competition consisted of designing an autonomous robot to demonstrate how it can be used to handle hazardous materials without human intervention. The task of the team's robot was to navigate itself on a closed track and move casks from a deposit area to the storage area.

Based on the weight of the casks, the robot had to self-determine in which color-coded bin the casks had to be stored. The teams were judged on how the robot maneuvered itself on the track, how it recognized color and weight, and its accuracy in placement of the objects.

The students designed and built the robot as part of their two-semester senior design course, which is a required course in the electrical engineering degree plan. The winning robot design was sponsored in part by a grant from the Intel Corporation.

"They were aware of the high stakes, but they took the challenge. This is important in whatever you do. They were very dedicated to their project, and spent long hours in the Electrical Engineering Robotics and Control Systems Lab where they designed, built, and tested their robot," Ben Ghalia said.

IEEE is considered one of the world's largest engineering organizations, and its members include faculty, students, and industry individuals from all over the world. Region 5 of IEEE represents the Southwestern region of the United States and it includes universities from the following states: Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, Nebraska, Wyoming, South Dakota, Illinois, Kansas, Colorado, and New Mexico.

Ben Ghalia said these types of competitions serve as confidence builders and are an excellent opportunity for UTPA students to travel and compete against their peers as well as meet with leaders in the electrical engineering industry.

"This type of competition brings name recognition to our University," he said. "Our electrical engineering program has demonstrated that it provides its students excellent education and training. I think that winning first place two years in a row has made us the university to beat in future competitions. This is a great accomplishment."

Ochoa said the win was a perfect ending to his college career. For Ochoa the long hours it took to create "Escorpion" was worth it as he was able to see it come to life and evolve into the championship robot for UTPA. He said the experience he gained from participating in such a competition will serve him well in the real world.

"Since most engineering companies work on a deadline, being on the robotics team and needing to finish a product weeks before other senior design projects because of the competition date, gave me a feel for what engineering jobs will be like. Having to design and build your own components, write the software, and try to perfect the performance of each module is relative to an engineering job setting," Ochoa said.

Ochoa and Resendez said the competition also opened doors in the job market for each team member as reputable engineering companies approached them after their win.

"It was an excellent achievement for us. After the competition I received some calls from companies who wanted me to interview with them," Resendez, the team captain, said. "All the hard work and team work really paid off."

Both Ochoa and Resendez have job prospects in California with Western Digital, one of the nation's leading companies in information storage management. In addition, both plan to pursue master's degrees in the future. Martinez has accepted a job offer from Cummins, Inc., a leading worldwide designer and manufacturer of fuel-efficient engines.

With all winning team members having graduated this spring, a new team of electrical engineering students will be chosen to represent UTPA at the 2009 competition to be held in Lubbock, Texas. In addition, a new set of guidelines for the competition will be released to competitors in September.

Ochoa's advice for next year's team is to think hard about their design, and, most of all use their time wisely.

"Be wise with your time, don't make things too complicated, and don't ease up for a moment, or else you'll already be behind in the competition," Ochoa said.

Other UTPA electrical engineering students who competed at the Region 5 robotics competition included the team of Paul Martinez of McAllen, Jose Sanchez of Reynosa, Mexico, and Alex Rodriguez of McAllen, whose robot "Ironbot" also made it into the final round. In the Region 5 student paper competition, Jubail Caballero of Edinburg won third place for his paper "RFID Proximity Card System," which had already won awards at the local and area levels. All students graduated this semester with the exception of Rodriguez, who will graduate in December 2008.

To learn more about the UTPA robotics team or the Department of Electrical Engineering, visit http://www.ee.utpa.edu/.