Whilst the snow shovels have been out in force across America's east coast states in recent weeks, a battle of a different kind was being fought further west that might just prove vital in future storms.
Eight teams from six universities battled it out at the recent Fifth Annual Autonomous Snowplow Competition on 24-25 January 2015 in Saint Paul, Minnesota. Founded by the Institute of Navigation (ION), teams were facing the challenge to design, build and operate a fully autonomous snow plough.
This year's winners, Team Zenith 2.0, representing the University of Michigan-Dearborn, took home the prestigious Golden Snow Globe award together with $7,000 to develop their model further, making it commercially viable.
Students are encouraged to use state-of-the-art navigation and control technologies that will rapidly, accurately and safely clear a designated path of snow. This year's key new rule modification was that snow had to be ploughed to specific areas of the competition snowfield to mimic snow removal of actual paths and driveways. The other key rules of the competition are that snow plough vehicles must start and stop from a garage, avoid posts in the middle of the competition snow paths, remain within a boundary surrounding the competition snow paths, and plough the competition snow paths within 20 minutes.
"The Autonomous Snowplow Competition has a number of objectives. The most important is to motivate and excite undergraduate engineering students about guidance, navigation and control systems," explains Dr Suneel I Sheikh, CEO and chief research scientist at ASTER Labs, and one of the competition's organisers.
He adds that the technical challenges are immense and the stakes are high.
"The snow plough vehicles weigh about 400-500 lbs and must autonomously plough snow from the two competition snowfield paths. The teams use different sensors and approaches to navigate around the snowfield paths such as GPS, inertial sensors, wheel encoders, magnetic sensors, cameras, and LIDARs [remote sensing technology]."
Teams are selected based on their total score including written reports, presentations and competition results.
"After five long years, the University of Michigan - Dearborn finally brought home the Golden Snow Globe Award and the bragging rights! Most importantly, we gained the experience of being able to put our knowledge from the classroom into practical application, and learn more about alternative methods of autonomous navigation from our competitors as well", says Zenith 2.0 team member Benjamin Pollatz, a robotics engineering and electrical engineering undergraduate.
The entry deadline for next year's competition is September 2015. For further information such as rules, sponsorship details and design requirements visit www.autosnowplow.com. Teams can apply for travel grants to Saint Paul, Minnesota, USA, through the ION starting in September 2015.
For more information on this year's competition, read our article Battle of the robot snow ploughs.