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April 27, 2006


BMC Roboblimp to Take on Philly-Area Competitors

Bryn Mawr's Blimp
The Bryn Mawr team made its own balloon for its blimp.

A stylish purple-and-blue contestant will take its place alongside the basic blimps at the Second Annual Indoor Aerial Robotics Competition at the Drexel University Athletic Center on Sunday, May 7, marking Bryn Mawr's first venture into competitive robotics. The Bryn Mawr team will compete against hackers from Drexel, Rowan, Rutgers and Villanova Universities to design a robotic blimp that can autonomously navigate a maze and then perform other tasks under remote human direction.

Julia Ferraioli '07, with advice from Assistant Professor of Computer Science Doug Blank, Assistant Professor of Computer Science Dianna Xu and Assistant Professor of Physics Michael Noel, is leading the team of Leslie McTavish '08, Marwa Muhammad '09, Samrina Sattar '09 and Sky Stegall '07. Both the Computer Science Program and the Physics Department have contributed funds, as has Drexel, which is hosting the contest. According to Blank, the team members "are all doing this for fun, after school." Some other teams undertake the competition for course credit, Ferraioli says.

For Ferraioli and her teammates, this is not only a first venture into competitive robotics, but their introduction to robotics, period. "Professor Blank saw me in the hall one day and said, 'Do you want to build a blimp?'" Ferraioli says. "I thought I'd misheard him, so I asked him to repeat himself, and he said the same thing the second time.

"I'm a junior computer-science major, but I hadn't had a chance to take the introductory robotics course yet," she says, "so this has been sort of a crash course but not literally, I hope!"

Ferraioli praises Blank and Noel for "pushing us on and getting us through the hard parts. I'm so glad I decided to participate this has been really fun. We hope to do it again next year. We've spent a lot of time this year just figuring out how to build the blimp, so we're still working on the actual programming. Next year, when we have more experience, building the apparatus won't be so much of an issue."

Ferraioli working on blimp
Team captain Julia Ferraioli '07 at work during a blimp meeting.

After rejecting several commercially manufactured balloons for the blimp, the team decided that to get maximum lift, it would have to design and make its own balloon to attach to the miniature gondola that would hold the robot's sensors. They calculated the ideal shape and then created it by sealing pieces of brightly colored mylar together with a hot iron.

The competition will be divided into two parts. In the first, the robot blimp, with no human assistance, must navigate a maze enclosed by 12-foot walls by following visual cues placed on the floor at each turn thus, it must be able see the cues and interpret their instructions to turn left, turn right or go straight. Points will be awarded for accuracy, completely autonomous operation and speed; points will also be awarded for the construction of a map that accurately records the robot's path through the maze.

The second part of the competition requires each team to stabilize its craft against mild wind gusts (created by a fan) to complete a "hover and stare" mission. Team members will not be able to see the blimp or the course, but must control it remotely using information from its sensors to judge the effect of wind and to count the number of "occupants" through the window of a model building.

The Bryn Mawr team will program its robot using Pyro, an open-source programming environment developed at Bryn Mawr for both experimental and pedagogical use. Last year Blank and Professor of Computer Science Deepak Kumar won the Premier Award for Excellence in Engineering Educational Courseware from the National Engineering Education Delivery System for their work in developing Pyro (see Bryn Mawr Now, Oct. 27, 2005).


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