University of Pretoria: UP Robot Car Race goes online for first time

The University of Pretoria recently hosted the ninth annual Robot Car Race online for the first time in the race’s eight-year history. The race was initiated in 2013 by the Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering in the Faculty of Engineering, Built Environment and Information Technology (EBIT) to create an engaging, enjoyable practical project for the third-year Microcontrollers Module.

The intent was to excite students about the learning material by creating a formal opportunity to play and explore. In this annual event, students race microcontroller-based autonomous robotic vehicles (MARVs) against one another on a five-metre track, and the cars with the fastest times race each other in the final. Parents, siblings, friends and family are invited to attend the race, which is the final practical assessment in the Microcontrollers Module.

The race was held online this year because the department realised that students were struggling with the lack of interaction with their peers and felt discouraged by lost opportunities. The Robot Car Race team therefore decided to reimagine and reinvent the event so that the third-year class of 2021 could have their race mostly in cyberspace, with the final being an in-person event.

Paper tracks that could be printed out on A4 pages and stuck together at home were designed; all the practical demonstrations that precede the final event were done online; and qualifier, quarterfinal and semifinal entries were submitted as video entries that were posted (and judged) on the event’s Facebook page.

On 28 August, the in-person event was hosted for the teams that came out tops during the online trials. The finalists, representatives of industry partners, UP staff members and the organising team were permitted to attend the in-person event, and the entire programme was streamed on UP’s YouTube channel for spectators.

Team 2 conquered the green line on the day and won the race, while Team 55 won the prize for the “coolest MARV”. Microcontrollers Module lecturer Professor Tania Hanekom congratulated all the students for their endurance. “Thank you to each and every student who gave their best. These were abnormal circumstances, but you were innovative, determined and showed true engineering skills and characteristics of which we are extremely proud!”

The sponsors who attended the in-person event were extremely impressed with the innovative way in which the race was hosted, and praised the students for their endurance and innovative ideas. This unique engineering education-in-action event is a reflection of the bright young talent that is graduating from UP’s engineering programmes.

The first event was presented in the foyer of the Engineering 3 building on the main campus. Prof Hanekom and Willem van Jaarsveld, laboratory instructor for the module, painted the floor of the building to even out the colour, then stuck isolation tape on the floor to make the tracks. Spectators could watch the race from the walking bridges inside the building. The 2014 race was also presented in Engineering 3, this time with the coloured tracks that became a hallmark of the event. But it was clear that the number of spectators was outgrowing the venue and the event was moved to the Amphitheatre from 2015.

Right from the start, the engineering industry pledged its involvement by sponsoring several prizes. The department says that without industry support, it would not have been possible to host the event for almost a decade. Support, it adds, extends beyond prizes, as a number of industry partners also fund resources that make learning accessible to all students, especially during a global crisis. Many of the department’s students don’t have the means to invest in the resources that industry provides, which have contributed to the department being the top-ranked Department of Electrical, Electronic and Computer Engineering in the country.

The project also extended to other modules in the department’s degree programmes over the years, creating horizontal and vertical integration of learning content in the programmes. Professor Trudi Joubert introduces the beginnings of the navigation system in the second-year Digital Electronics Module, and the sensor design for the robot in the Analogue Electronics Module that runs concurrently with the Microcontrollers Module in the first semester of third year. The robot forms the core of the design modules that are presented in the second half of the third year by Professor Tinus Stander and Dr Werner Badenhorst, who teach proper systems engineering principles. Elements of the robot are also used as a platform for studying sophisticated control systems in the downstream Control Systems Module presented by Professor Ian Craig and Dr Derik le Roux.

This year, the department also started a Robot School community engagement project that is inspired by the Robot Car Race and involves second-year students in the faculty as well as final-years who need to complete a work-integrated learning period.

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