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BYU electrical engineers program robot cars to play capture the flag

BYU’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering recently unveiled its next senior project series: small cars that not only drive themselves but have the brains to compete autonomously in strategic games.

The project series, a five-year endeavor sponsored by the Ira A. Fulton College of Engineering and Technology, will keep the next era of BYU’s budding electrical engineers busy, tweaking electronic hardware, improving the computer code of the cars’ “brains” and perfecting game-winning algorithms.

After simply pressing “go,” the cars — outfitted with processors and circuit boards that the students designed from scratch — recognized and approached targets, tagged them with a laser to pick up “the flag,” and then found and tagged home base, earning points for each successful flag capture.

“As with any prototype, you learn what works and what doesn’t,” said senior Jonathan Steck as he retired his team’s car from its maiden voyage. “We’ve learned what algorithms might work best in the future.”

Steck said the class contributed to his understanding of product development.

“I learned a lot about how to work in a team environment, how to build a quality product and how to work through setbacks,” Steck said. That knowledge will be helpful as he heads off to a summer internship designing graphics processors for computer graphics company NVIDIA.

The department has recently placed students with NASA Jet Propulsion, Lincoln Labs at MIT, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon. David Long, an electrical engineering professor, said while the downturn in the economy has cut many jobs, the opposite seems to be true for electrical engineers. “We can’t get enough grads for job openings right now,” he said.

To lure in more students, the department provides opportunities for students to get involved in leading research projects as well as fun, extra-curricular activities. For one of these activities, students custom-rigged mini monster trucks with laser sensors, then competed to steer their trucks around obstacles and into pins — scoring points for each pin barreled over.

Spencer Chadderdon, a senior on the winning team, said experiences like this are valuable and help prepare him for future careers. “We did so much research of new circuits,” he said. “In the industry, you may get a problem with circuits and components you’ve never heard of, kind of like this.”

Local companies in the industry want these engineers as well.

“We’re excited about working with departments at BYU, especially electrical engineering,” said Scott Southwick who was on site representing IM Flash Technologies. The Intel-Micron joint venture based in Lehi, Utah designs and manufactures microchips destined for memory sticks, solid state hard drives and Apple iPods. “Chances are that half the students on this campus have one of our chips in their bags,” Southwick said.

Two other senior projects on display show electrical engineering’s wide range of applications.

For one project, students prepared a portable system for BYU humanities professors to peer deep into the past of ancient manuscripts. The group’s device—a camera, some electrical processors and accompanying software—scans documents several times then creates a new image, revealing lost markings. “There’s a lot of text that’s been washed out with time. By taking pictures at different light wavelengths, we can recover ‘lost’ text,” said senior Tyler Russell.

While Russell’s group engineered a detailed look into the past, another research team engineered the future of communicating in close quarters.

With a transmitter and a receiver just a meter apart, the students sent data and some video captured on one computer across the airwaves to another. Brett Gottula, a senior working on the project, said his groups’ work will help enhance Orem-based FreeLinc’s existing products: cordless radio microphones and headsets that are sought after by police and military personnel for their better-than-Bluetooth security. Gottula said Bluetooth signals can be intercepted from a distance, but FreeLinc’s short-range technology helps eliminate that problem.

Story Highlights

  • Students are programming toy cars to compete without human controls
  • Other projects include laser-guided mini trucks and secure headsets for police
  • Professors say there are more job opportunities than graduates right now

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This toy car has been programmed by BYU student engineers to find targets and "tag" them with a laser, then return to this home base.

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Electrical engineers demo their laser-guided mini-truck. Left to right: Danny Savory, Prof. Neal Bangerter, and Spencer Chadderdon.
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