Thinking Outside the Yard

by Sharyn Kopf—Cedarville, Ohio

Watch the mower in action!

Cedarville, Ohio—Imagine mowing your lawn … while sitting in your kitchen, drinking coffee and reading the paper! That’s the dream. And engineering students at Cedarville University were hard at work this past spring helping to make it a reality. They built an autonomous robotic lawnmower as part of the 5th Annual Institute of Navigation Robotic Lawnmower Competition … and came home with a first place finish in their division.

“GPS is good, but it has limitations,” says Dr. Clinton Kohl, associate professor of electrical engineering and project supervisor. “The students needed to figure out how to utilize it autonomously and safely.”

This senior design project offered a great experience for the three students involved, in ways they hadn’t imagined. “Sure, we learned a lot technically,” says team member Nick Parry ’08. “But the most important lessons come from learning to work well with your teammates and outside companies. Those are the skills that are most directly transferable to the industry.”

With that in mind, team member Scott Norman tells of his own involvement in one of the more challenging and, ultimately, rewarding aspects of the project.

Scott’s Story
by Bryan “Scott” Norman

For my team’s senior design project, we built an autonomous robotic lawnmower, which we entered in the 5th Annual Institute of Navigation Robotic Lawnmower Competition June 5-8 in Beavercreek, Ohio.

As our team was made up of two computer engineers (Dan Ballard and Nicholas Parry) and one electrical engineer (me), we did not want to build our own physical lawnmower. Our main focus was to be on the robot “brains” — the computer and sensors that sense and interact with the environment to autonomously cut the competition field. Thus, we decided to look into commercial remote-controlled lawnmowers that are already out there.

Finding such a machine would allow us to simply interface our electronics with their already-existing electronics for the purpose of controlling the unit. Otherwise, we would have to either build or modify a lawnmower with electric motors, build motor controllers, and do a lot of mechanical engineering work with no mechanical engineers on the team.

As we searched the Internet, we found some lawnmowers or kits that were basically modified push mowers with 22-inch decks. Companies, we soon discovered, charged way more than we could afford — multiple thousands of dollars — for these mowers. That’s until we came across the Spider, a commercial remote-controlled slope mower engineered by Dvorak, a company based in the Czech Republic.

Our jaws dropped — this thing was cool. But we also realized that it probably cost well over $10,000 … quite out of our budget. In fact, it turns out the thing sells for $42,500. Still, a boy can dream, right?

Well, I decided we were going to get one — or at least do everything in our power to do so. Buying it wasn’t an option … so we were going to need them to give us one. Fat chance. But you never know until you ask. If you don’t ask, the answer’s already no.

So I asked. As I was considering what a big deal it was to ask a company to donate a piece of equipment worth thousands upon thousands of dollars, I decided to contact Dave Ormsbee, associate vice president for strategic initiatives at Cedarville University, and see if he would help me approach this request in the best way possible. He is, after all, experienced in making these kinds of deals.

I went to ask for guidance, and Mr. Ormsbee was incredibly helpful. He went as far as to initiate communication with Jan Formanek, the sales manager of Dvorak in the Czech Republic. He then put me in touch with Mr. Formanek, and I sent the latter my request on December 5, 2007.

Behind the scenes, Mr. Formanek communicated with Ampcontrol, an Oklahoma City-based U.S. distributor of the Spider mower. Then, on January 15, Mr. Formanek put me in communication with Ryan Deatherage, owner of Ampcontrol. Over the next several days, we explored the potential partnership between Ampcontrol/Dvorak and Cedarville.

Turns out, Ampcontrol and Dvorak have an interest in developing autonomous capabilities for the Spider. They decided that Cedarville was a potential partner for research and development in this field. Thus, they agreed to give us a Spider mower to use this semester for our project as a means of “testing the waters” with Cedarville to see what we will deliver. Now that we’ve won, they will evaluate the experience and determine if this is a research partnership they will want to keep for the coming years.

Mr. Deatherage, Mr. Formanek and Dave Paden, the Hetronic engineer who helped us interface our computer with the lawnmower’s, joined as at the competition. It was great to have their support as they experienced this win with us. Mr. Deatherage said they were “happy with the way everything went given the limited time and resources you had.”

For me, personally, this has been a great experience in professional and organizational communication. It has been both a tremendous responsibility and an exciting opportunity to represent Cedarville to this company as we explored our potential partnership. This undertaking is a lot bigger than regular school work, where there’s not quite as much at stake if I mess up or don’t get things done right. We’re actually talking about a professional relationship between Cedarville, Ampcontrol and Dvorak. Not to mention a $42,500 piece of equipment!