College of Engineering
A little initiative can go a long way. The Advanced Robotics Club at UTSA found that out first hand when they began reaching out to the Air Force to assist in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) events.
Robert Lucio, an electronics engineer in the United States Air Force said it was the Advanced Robotics Club that first reached out to him about working with the Air Force during STEM events.
“It was the president of the Advanced Robotics Club (Denise Guerra) who first contacted us,” Lucio said. “She called and asked if students could volunteer to assist with Air Force STEM events. I’ve been working with these students for two and a half years now and that began through STEM work.”
Guerra was drawn to the Air Force because of the strong community ties to San Antonio.
“Advanced Robotics is very interested in engaging with the local engineering community in San Antonio to engage in various projects,” Guerra said. “The Air Force is a big part of the San Antonio community and we wanted to strengthen our relationship with them and the military.”
The hard work of the student volunteers impressed Lucio form the beginning.
“They built the trust we have in them,” Lucio said. “They reached out and showed us they were reliable. They were up early on Saturdays when most people rather be sleeping.”
After establishing a relationship built on trust and reliability with the Air Force, Guerra requested that the Advanced Robotics Club be able to host it’s own STEM event that the Air Force would help facilitate.
For the event, UTSA students laid out a scenario where high school students were taught how to design and populate circuit boards. The purpose of the boards was to set a series of LED lights to blink in a set pattern. When attached to a moving wand, the lights spelled out words or made shapes.
With the event a success Lucio decided to move the relationship with UTSA forward, inviting the Advanced Robotics Club to help Lackland Air Force Base compete in the Commanders Challenge.
“We kind of took it to the next level,” Lucio said. “Because they earned our trust we went ahead and invited them to be a part of this partnership.”
The Commanders Challenge presents teams from six different bases with a scenario they need to design equipment for. This year, the challenge was built around finding a way to safely bring drones flying into base air space down. With a budget of $50,000 and a timeframe of six months in order to complete the project, Lucio set out to find a way to get UTSA students involved.
“We tried to find a way to get the students to participate,” Lucio said. “We met with Dean Browning (of the UTSA College of Engineering) and let her know that there were students from the Advanced Robotics Club that wanted to get involved. We assigned them to build helper robot for the drone captures.”
Lucio’s team decided to utilize electronic warfare to take down the drones as bullets could cause collateral damage. According to Lucio, 90 percent of the drones on the market use one of three ways to control them. The first way to control a drone is via Wi-Fi signals. If using Wi-Fi the drone takedown system will intercept the packets being sent between the drone and it’s controller and sends their own signals that will allow them to bring the drone down.
Traditional remote controls can also be used, in which case a smart signal jammer is employed to take the drone down. If using a GPS system, a guidance device is used to throw off the signal and land the drone making it think it is where it needs to be.
Once the drone is on the ground is when the helper robot designed by UTSA students comes into play. The team decided that sending in live personnel to extract the downed drones could be dangerous. The potential for chemical weapons being attached to the drones or a bomb being on one was to great to risk a human life. So UTSA students set about designing a robot with a net gun that could be controlled via a tablet to capture the drones.
Using a Raspberry Pi to power the robot, the students set out to design an app from scratch to control the robot. The tablet uses the app to run the motor control of the robot. The net gun is also powered from the tablet and can be fired by the user to capture the drone.
While several clubs on campus are geared towards specific majors, the Advanced Robotics Club tries to recruit students from a variety of disciplines. Julian Salas, a computer engineering major and the vice president of the Advanced Robotics Club, feels it’s important to get students from a variety of majors involved.
“We have all kinds of members,” Salas said. “We invite everybody regardless of major to come out. It’s important because a computer science major may bring something to the table that a mechanical engineering major would not think of.”
Lucio seconded Salas’s opinion.
“It’s great because in the real world you have people from various disciplines working together on projects like this,” Lucio said.
The competition will begin on Dec. 8 with results to be announced on Dec. 16.
Note: Advanced Robotics and the USAF at Lackland AFB won the Commander’s Challenge Competition that took place on December 8, 2017. Congratulations!