ODU VEXU Robotics Club: From Scrap to Champions
When Richard Stinson and Daquan Styles rebuilt the ODU Robotics team back in 2013, they had little idea just how far they would go on their shared interest in robots and engineering.
Stinson, a mechanical engineering major, and Styles, an electrical engineering major, wanted to join a robotics club while in their sophomore year. Their desire stemmed from more than just wanting something to do outside of class. They wanted to be able to mentor other robotically-inclined students from their previous high school in Portsmouth. Unfortunately, the previous robotics team had practically disbanded the year before, so they started it up again themselves.
With the help of a professor, they performed all the necessary administrative work to form the ODU VEXU Robotics club, with Stinson as the club’s president and Styles as the vice president. The two would also share the duties of project lead when it came time to start designing and building robots. Their goal for the club was to be able to enter their robotic creations in competitions. They faced the same problems all new clubs face: a lack of funds. Fortunately, the club’s academic adviser was willing to provide them with starting capital, given generously from part of their own PhD grant.
The club began designing and building their competition-ready robots. They went through many designs and iterations as they attempted to make a functional robot. Along the way, they grew to include mechanical engineering majors Darryl Sampson and Michael Darnell and electrical engineering major Matthew Staleg, the self-professed “head of all things electrical.”
In 2015, the club had their first competition in Maryland. This was not their first robotic outing, however. In 2014, they built a robot for the homecoming parade that launched candy into the hands of parade-goers. The competition was the first true test of their building skills. The lab became their home for a few days as they prepared their robots in a “mad dash of trial and error” over winter break.
The competition was centered around a game called “Nothing But Net,” where robots are tasked with picking up balls scattered around a field and lobbing them into nets situated at the corners. Teams are allowed to bring multiple robots, but only two are allowed to compete in two different size categories. The first category only allowed robots that fit within a 15-inch cube, and the second only allowed bots that fit within a 24-inch cube.
The team managed a successful run in Maryland, coming in fourth overall. They were particularly emphatic about their victory over Virginia Tech. In two rounds of direct head-to-head competition, ODU VEXU beat Virginia Tech in a separate robotic challenge of picking up and stacking cubes.
With their first victory at Maryland behind them, ODU VEXU achieved legitimacy in the eyes of the university and received more funding to pursue future competitions. They also learned some of their weaknesses. They focused so much on their robots, the team neglected to write up an engineering notebook, which was essential in the competitions. They also learned how to better plan and test their robots.
This time, ODU VEXU entered in a competition at Purdue University for the VEX Regional Qualifiers. Competing at Purdue gave them a chance to learn from both the prestigious university and from other top-ranked teams in attendance. It was here drivers Staleg and Sampson faced the stress and obstacles of controlling their robots against the opposition’s own robots. ODU VEXU came in a respectable fourth place out of 10, though Styles insisted it should have been a “technical” third place. More impressively, they won a ranking of second in the world for programming skills.
ODU VEXU secured even more funding and an even better idea of what their robots needed to do for the next competition. Former robot “Djanky: Unchained” was rebuilt into “Peyton Manning,” and new robot “Cam Newton” played alongside.
ODU VEXU’s most recent competition was at the College of Southern Maryland. As was usually the case, their entry was not without problems. “Cam” did not qualify initially because he was too big, but three hours of shaving and tweaking managed to get him within size requirement. “Peyton’s” launching mechanism wasn’t working properly, but that too was fixed before the match. For this competition, “Cam” and “Peyton” were to score as many points as possible, completely autonomously without any control from the team.
One of the main rivals was “North American Robotics,” the No. 1 team at the time, composed of members from across the U.S. and Canada. This top team managed a score of 315 before leaving early, but that was their mistake. ODU VEXU stayed the entire time and managed a top score of 321, which was even more impressive considering “Cam” was essentially the only robot making points with a perfect shot record. With that, ODU VEXU won and was, not officially, the No. 1 ranked in the world in programming skills.
ODU VEXU has qualified for the World Championships in April in Louisville, KY. They are currently designing four different robots to take with them, including “Cam Newton” and a redesigned “Peyton Manning.” If they win, not only will they garner more recognition for ODU VEXU, but they hope to grow the club to include a secondary team for any non-engineers interested in robotics.
Starting from a rebuilt club and going all the way to the VEXU World Championship, ODU VEXU has taken a love of robotics and hard work a long way. As Matthew Staleg put it, “We started with a bucket scrap and then built a mobile bucket of scrap that works.” But not only does it work, it wins. ODU VEXU can be found in room 1125 of the Engineering System Building, or contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.