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Monday, February 26, 2024

UF's New Engineering Building was overrun by robots Aug. 9, but neither hostile aliens nor a malicious computer system were responsible for the invasion.

Engineering students from UF and several other universities built the 24 robots. About 100 people watched the self-directed robots perform tasks such as avoiding obstacles, collecting objects and watering plants.

UF electrical engineering senior Andrew McCaddin's creation, The Silly Goose, identified origami "child" and "adult" geese by their bright orange and green colors. The robot, sporting its own paper cover resembling a goose, would then bring the baby geese back to their parents.

Eric Schwartz, associate director of UF's Machine Intelligence Laboratory, coordinated the display, which he holds at the end of each semester.

"This is an opportunity to show off," he said. "There are very few undergraduates in the world that can do what our undergraduates do."

About half of the students were in the summer Intelligent Machine Design Laboratory course, he said.

The other half came from the MIL or the MIL's Research Experience for Undergraduates program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation, he said. The program gives ,5,000 stipends to six UF students and six students from other schools to participate in engineering research.

Schwartz said he hopes the display sparks interest in engineering, especially in children who attended the show. The hands-on experience is priceless for future engineers, he added.

"You learn so much more when you're building something, doing something real, than class work," he said.

But the road to the final show was not easy, according to several of Schwartz's engineering students.

McCaddin said he spent the five weeks previous to the demonstration building and programming the robot. Many students worked on their robots up through the early morning, he said.

The location of the display also added an unexpected challenge, he said.

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Because the robots were constructed in lab, the different lighting, cooler temperature and reflective floor of the Harris Corporation Rotunda of the New Engineering Building threw off many of the robots' sensors, he said.

Though his robot fared well in the challenging environment, UF electrical engineering senior Shu Jiang said he also spent many hours upgrading the MIL Rover, a robot originally constructed by other students. He upgraded the control system on the machine, which is modeled after NASA's Sojourner Mars rover.

Like Sojourner, the MIL Rover is able to navigate over large obstacles, which Jiang demonstrated by allowing the rover to roll over his prone body.

Jiang said the practical know-how he received while preparing for the exhibition helped him develop skills outside of his usual studies.

"Before I took this class, I couldn't even drill a hole," Jiang said, adding that he now has the confidence to build "something that works."

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