Kent State Robotics team makes great strides


(from left) Senior Joshua Ishihara, senior Dan Kish and sophomore Sarah Rosenbaum with their award-winning robot digger, “Cyborg Betty,” on Friday, Jan. 29, 2016.

Jenna Kuczkowski

For students of the Kent State Robotics Team, nothing is unreachable, not even Mars.

“If you think about it, the only way we’ve gotten to Mars thus far is with robots,” said Rick Szalay, a freshman applied math major and member of the robotics team. “I don’t think robotics and space explorations will ever become irrelevant, and we’ll continue to lead these kinds of missions.”

For the second year in a row, the Kent State robotics team will be competing in the NASA Robotic Mining Competition in May. This competition challenges university level students to design and build a robot that can traverse simulated Martian terrain, as well as excavate materials similar to those found on Mars and successfully dump them into a collection bin.

“The NASA competition is made to be as realistic as possible, they limit you from using things that wouldn’t work in space like magnetic sensors and sonar,” said Dan Kish, the founder and president of the robotics team. “So you have to design it like you’re actually sending it to space and that’s what makes it so rewarding and educational.”

Last year, the team placed seventh out of 50 teams in mining after experiencing some issues in the final minutes of the competition.

“There was about a 15-20 second delay from the control room to the actual movement of the robot in the arena,” Kish, a senior industrial technology major, said. “Our robot didn’t respond quick enough and drove itself up the wall of the pit when it was trying to dump, causing it to fall right over on its back.” 

Kish said he and the team immediately regretted not putting wheel buffers on, which would have made the robot unable to climb. This year, he said the team will make sure this doesn’t happen, and they will make the robot lighter and partially autonomous. This means the robot will be able to partially drive and operate itself using artificial intelligence.  

Last year, the team only had around three months to design and create its first attempt at a mining robot.

“During the last two months of the project, a lot of us were putting in easily 18 hours every day,” Kish said. “We slept on location plenty of times and pulled all-nighters to meet deadlines.”

This year, students of the robotics team have spent the last five months working in the old glass lab in an organized chaos of wires, wheels, frames and batteries, preparing for their highly anticipated return to the NASA competition.

With more time to build and improve their robot, the team will be hosting a practice robotic mining competition on Feb. 6 at 10 a.m. in the old glass lab located in the Schwartz Center.

Kent State Robotics

While the Kent State Robotics Team has designed and built robots together since the fall semester of 2014, they’ve also done a significant amount of moving around. Dan Kish, the president of the Kent State Robotics Team, said the team was first housed in lab space within the college of engineering’s building, then the team was moved to the Research One building across the street. Finally, they recently moved into the old glass lab located in the Schwartz Center. Shin-Min Song, the faculty advisor for the robotics team, said the team spends a lot of its time and energy relocating all their equipment, tools and supplies from one building to the next. “They spend half of their energy just to move their things,” Song said. “You have to be able to keep up the passion and energy levels in a group like this, but if they’re always putting effort into moving, it’s tough to do sometimes.” Now that the team is situated in the old glass lab, Song hopes they will be able to stay there permanently. In the past the university has only let the team use space temporarily. “If the university lets us continue to use the old glass lab as our permanent base, I think the area is big enough,” said Song. Without the university’s support, the team might be at risk of losing the space, making them unable to sustain new members, Song said. “We will see if we can keep this space for a longer time,” Song said. “Then maybe we can add more new members and take on new projects in the future.”.

Kish said the team got the idea to host a practice competition after meeting hundreds of students during last year’s competition and finding out that everyone had the same kinds of problems while designing and testing their robots.

“After last year’s NASA competition, I went and tried to contact all 49 other teams that had participated with us to invite them to come to the practice,” said Sarah Rosenbaum, the head of the team’s public relations and member of the team.

Four universities will be attending the practice competition; these include, Case Western Reserve, Virginia Tech, Akron University and Iowa State.

“It’s less of a competition and more of a critical design review,” Kish said.


Kish said that although there will be representatives from NASA’s Cleveland based Glenn Research Center judging the practice competition, mainly by how well the robot actually mines. He believes the main goal of the practice is to help its participating teams gauge where they are with their designs as well as what they need to improve upon.

“I am really looking forward to the practice competition,” Rosenbaum said. “It has been a lot of work putting it together, but it’ll be really rewarding to see everyone here and it all come together.”

Original member Josh Ishihara said that he’s incredibly excited for the practice competition and that it will be a huge boost for not only Kent State’s Robotics Team, but other teams as well.

“One of the reasons we did so well in the competition last year was because we were able to practice in a pit before we left for NASA,” Ishihara said. “Only a couple of other schools have that ability so the practice competition gives these other schools a resource they couldn’t receive at their own colleges.”

Ishihara said he was in charge of creating this year’s and last year’s practice pit. The pit dominates the center room of the old glass lab, measuring 12-by-23-feet and filled with 20 tons of limestone gravel and 10 tons of feldspar to create the mock Martian practice arena.

Made up of eight to 10 core members and dozens of others, the team was started in the spring semester of 2014 after their now president, Kish, was applying for a manufacturing systems job and found out he didn’t have the hands-on experience with the needed technology.

“I realized college doesn’t teach you what you need to know in the real world, they just give you a real general overview of everything,” Kish said. “It makes you sound like you know what you’re talking about, but when you’re put into a situation where you actually have to problem solve on your own, you aren’t able to.”  

Kish said he believes the robotics team is now able to provide students with this hands-on experience they might not get in the classroom, as well as valuable experience working with a team and learning to problem solve.

Shin-Min Song, a professor who serves as the advisor for the robotics team, said that he believes Kent State’s Robotics Team is important because it gives interested students an outlet to directly work with robots and pursue their interest.

“Before we had the robotics club, there was nothing like it as an extracurricular activity,” Song said. “It really brings students together from different areas, not only in the college of engineering, but from outside of it as well.”

Rosenbaum, who is a sophomore german major, said that although she doesn’t have a technical background coming into the group, she has always had a special appreciation for the team and has learned quite a deal from being apart of the team by working with them on designing and building the robot .

“It’s almost like I’m getting an outside perspective,” Rosenbaum said. “The guys will show me something and I’ll be like ‘whoa that’s so cool’ and it will make them realize actually how cool what we’re doing is.”

Building robots isn’t cheap though, the team spent a total of $20,000 last year to create its robot for NASA and travel to the competition in Florida.

“Our main source of funding comes from the Ohio Space Grant, which gives us $9,500, but we also get funding from private donations as well as the university who gives us an average of $3,000,” Rosenbaum said. “The rest of the money we pay out of pocket and hope to get back with other grants.”

Kish said he describes the group as a “labor of love” only made possible by having such a dedicated group of hard working, fun people.

“For me, I came to get experience and a foot in the door in the robotics world, but I stayed because of the team and the people here,” Ishihara said.

Kish said he highly recommends anyone interested in robotics, engineering major or not, to join the team.

“From drawing something on a computer, to seeing it happen in real life is one of the most enjoyable things,” Kish said. “When everything comes together and works the way you wanted it to, it’s just so incredibly rewarding.”

If students are interested in attending the practice competition, the team said all are welcome, but because space is limited, there will also be a live stream of the practice in the Governance Chambers, located on the second floor of the student center from 10 a.m.-7 p.m.

Contact Jenna Kuczkowski at [email protected].