High School Engineering

Concept to Competition: Micro-Mouse Robots

What lies behind this competition is more than just a maze and code, it’s the future of autonomous travel!

Micro-Mouse is a micro-robot made for a robotics competition that originated in 1970s London. It has become popular across the UK, East Asia, the US, and more. The small robot is pre-programmed with searching algorithms to asses its surroundings using sensors. Then, the robot is placed in a maze, where it must use the algorithm to find a path to the center. Once the robot is done searching, the robot is set to the beginning of the maze to navigate to the center of the maze using the data collected as fast as possible. On the entry level, the 16 x 16 maze had walls for the sensors to detect on three sides.

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This year, I had the opportunity to work with one of these mini robots with my team from NJ Governor’s STEM Scholars and our NJIT mentor. We took a look at what one the students at NJIT had developed and had an opportunity to add to their A* searching algorithm. Along the way, we learned that there’s a lot more to these robots despite their size, the one we worked on was primitive compared to the level of craftsmanship that is found at real micro-mouse competitions.

Our Hardware:

  • The mbed LPC1768 microcontroller board was used to store the code and logic for the robot
  • Three short-distance infrared sensors on the right, left, and front of the robot, and two long-distance infrared sensors pointed diagonally in the front
  • Two motors and gearboxes with a gear ratio of 50:1
  • 7.4V 1100 mAh battery
  • 5” Robot Chassis (body)

The competition is so high that the internet itself lacks many resources. Though people have been pushing to open micro-mouse up to more developers beyond just its current niche, it’s often up to the designer to do their research from scratch and work their way up. As you’ll see from these photos, this results in micro-mice in all shapes and sizes.

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Image from UCLA IEEE

There are tons of factors that have to be taken into consideration when developing autonomous travel. How do you get the mouse to turn corners? How will it back away from walls? How will it know it is in the center? These are all questions that need to be considered. When answered though, the lightweight and compact micro-mice represent some of the highest performing autonomous robots that make them perfect test subjects for navigation algorithms.

At national and international competitions, they have taken another step towards developing half-sized micro-“bees” to sense paths over guiding lines on 32 x 32 mazes that impressively fly through the maze in seconds. Here are some clips of robots built by Ng Beng Kiat, a champion competitor:

It may be tempting to skip to the end and see just how fast these things go, but after being a part of the back end of the process I definitely had my own appreciation for the searching portion of the competition too! Seeing these robots race in action was inspirational. Autonomous travel is the future of transportation: it’s cheaper, safer, and more efficient. Here I was working on a project that was an offshoot of a profoundly innovative concept. Taking on a challenge that so few others my age had done before excited me. I felt like a pioneer!

Even more than that, I was given the resources and the opportunity to push myself to solve complex problems I wouldn’t have thought were within my capabilities. With enough time and dedication, finding entry-level engineering projects like these are not an impossible feat. It may take years, but every bit of progress is progress. It’s up to you to decide. Will you be on this path one day or will this day be your day one?


References:

 

Dibley, Alan. “IEE Micromouse Competition Guide (1993).” Micromouse Competition 2004, http://www.tic.ac.uk/micromouse/guide/index.asp.

“TechFest Competitions (Including UK Micromouse).” Birmingham City School of Engineering and Built Environment, http://www.bcu.ac.uk/engineering/news-events/micromouse/history.

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