A six-wheeled, solid-chassis Autonomous Firefighter clambered over stairs and debris in the mock house, methodically scanning rooms using infrared sensors to detect fire
“That’s when people started taking us seriously. We got a lot of publicity. Our numbers increased in the club. It’s one thing to be in a club, and another to show you can compete aggressively on the global level,” said Mason Sage, club president.
The firefighting robot was just one of the creations dreamed up by the club: A sign-language speaking hand, bi-pedal walking robot and a battlebot with a 30-lb spinning blade took home medals, too. This May, three club members, Josh Adriano, Chandler Bonner and Patrick Leiser won the top 3 spots in bipedal robotics at RoboJam, a robotics competition held at Maker Faire in San Mateo. Students also drifted around the track on souped-up toddler-sized electric cars.
After the cancelling of RoboGames, one of the major heavyweight robotics competitions in the country, Sierra College decided to put on their own event: The NorCal Robotics Expo. Sage took third for building an autonomous vehicle in May, among other team wins.
“Right now, they’re on a real high. There’s a lot of interest,” said Mike O’Connor, a club member with a 40-year career in machining and welding who mentored the club to use the advanced-manufacturing equipment and tools.
Students used Hacker Lab like a garage for the robots’ development, and Sierra College for club meetings, Sage said. The club brings electronic experience to O’Connor and Ray Atnip’s machining backgrounds with Sierra Makerspaces, Sierra College’s project with three private-makerspace partners.
Tony Osladil, Sierra College Mechatronics professor, a mentor to the club and its faculty adviser, said the recent wins were a culmination of years of hard work.
“The real success is the club’s existence since 2007. Dozens of students have designed and built so many different projects, including combat robots from 1lb. to 220lbs, racing “barbie cars”, autonomous navigation, autonomous firefighter bots and more,” Osladil said. “In the process, the students not only learned how to see an idea though from initial concept to working product, but also got hands-on practice with electrical and mechanical technology, as well as teamwork, leadership, deadlines and other skills that will last a lifetime.”
The “barbie” cars teach students the basics of suspension, gear ratios and how a transmission works. That leads to combat robotics with 1,3,120- and higher weight remote-controlled robots competing in an arena with bulletproof glass. The club pulls parts off industrial machinery, including copper from a ski lift and AR400 steel used for Humvee armor found at a scrap yard.
Sage credited the 24-hour access at Hacker Lab Powered by Sierra College, O’Connor and Sierra College’s Mechatronics program. Students used welding equipment, 3D printers, Fusion 360 modeling and other tools.
“We would not be able to do what we do without Hacker Lab. The amount of tools and mentorship we’ve gotten from there has been been invaluable. We were using it pretty much every day all term leading up to competitions,” Sage said. “We’d work from 3 – 6 p.m. And come back from 9 to 2 in the morning.”
All of the students’ designs are original and student-created, first of their kinds and one-offs. Usability and project turnaround was increased with the laser cutter. Some of the 3D-printed parts were used to confirm it worked, later machined by Mike O’Connor.
The club dedicated the Sierra College-funded battle arena to O’Connor for his mentorship.
“I guess I’ve helped them out a bit,” admitted O’Connor, 55.
Students first came to O’Connor’s machine shop 13 years ago, searching for help from Granite Bay High School’s robotics program. When he wanted to upgrade his knowledge, he went back to school to Sierra to learn the CNC machines. He got credit for attending the robotics club, which he soon learned was led by the student he first taught in his shop years before was the club president before Sage.
Students will bring a problem to O’Connor, which he helps workshop.
“3D printing is not applicable to everything; some things need to be made out of metal,” O’Connor said. “If it’s doable, we figure out what material and decide whether to do a CNC or a manual lathe.
O’Connor had a contract with the school for maintenance on the Tormach CNC and developed curriculum using grant money that’s since expires. O’Connor retired early for health reasons and remains a student to help the robotics club.
“They’re so smart. There’s no more shops in high school and most of them have never seen this many tools. Electrical stuff is one thing, and Mechatronics has sheet metal; they don’t have a lot of heavy machining. Hacker Lab helps them broadened that education.”
O’Connor recalled a go-kart with a broken transmission part.
“I said, make a new one. They looked at me like I was crazy. I came back within an hour with the part,” he said with a laugh. “I don’t know anything about the electronics stuff—coding, programming, computers, I have no—but when it comes to the parts and welding, they help me if I have problems and I help them.”
“It works out pretty good that way,” he said.
Driven by passion
Students have also used Hacker Lab Powered by Sierra College for their personal projects.
Mason Sage knew sign language. He couldn’t find any sign-language speaking robots. So, he built one.
Using 3D-printed parts, servos, python programming and a Raspberry Pi brain, Sage took an open-source arm someone had posted and retrofitted it to sign letters of the alphabet. His robot could sign several letters for a $200 total, much lower than the $2,000 hands existing today. Sage built the communication protocol in open-source, a foundation for others to contribute to down the line.
Next up, the club will engage in an inter-club competition this summer using the arena by the front door for combat and hosting another competition. O’Connor has another year or two to go, he said.
Sage, president for two years, is graduating and heading to San Jose State for Mechanical Engineering with a Mechatronics focus to do robotics R&D.
“It gets me up in the morning,” Sage said. “We’ve been given the resources we needed. Our adviser, Tony, is hands-off allowing us to excel. We wouldn’t be as successful without this partnership.”
Osladil goes back to the international win for his highlights.
“Competing against other schools as well as professional engineers from the US and other countries such as Germany and Indonesia, our team more than held their own. We even received a US Congressional recognition of our excellent performance.”