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Robotics competition shows Nazarbayev University applied-science quest is on track

12 december 2011, 11:59
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A recent robotics competition at Nazarbayev University offered an entertaining and intriguing example of the university’s determination to bring applied science to Kazakhstan.

The contestants -- eight teams of students in the university’s School of Science and Technology – built and programmed wheeled robots to travel up a wheelchair ramp linking the university’s front entrance and its palm-filled atrium.

The winners would be the team whose robot chugged up the ramp quickest.

News of the competition is sure to please President Nursultan Nazarbayev. A key reason he founded the university was to introduce applied science in the country – and the competition showed the institution is taking steps to do just that.

Applied science leads to the creation of products -- as opposed to pure science, which is done simply to add to the world’s knowledge. The president wants Kazakhstan to be a bastion of applied science to generate good-paying jobs, bolster the economy and increase exports.

Creating robots capable of negotiating the wheelchair ramp was no easy task for the students. The incline between the main entrance and the atrium is steep, so the ramp designers included three 180-degree turns in it to provide gentle slopes for wheelchair users.

That meant the second-year students had to create programming that would prevent the robots from hitting the ramp’s walls or overturning.

It was fun to watch the students’ reactions to the competition. Some chattered with excitement, even though many were running on adrenaline after pulling all-nighters to make final adjustments to their robots.

Second-place winners in the Nazarbayev University robotics competition were, from left, Ainur Seidullayeva, Tasbolat Taunyazov, Zhansaya Zhapar and KamazhayTulkibayeva. Photo by Zhuldyzay Dauletalina, Nazarbayev University.

A few students, like Saltanat Karazhigitova, were as nervous as if they were going on their first date. “I always get nervous during a competition,” the normally calm Saltanat said with a furrowed brow.

She needn’t have worried. Her team ended up a respectable third in the competition.

As each robot climbed the ramp, the students who had built it yelled: “Go, go, go!” And when it reached the finish line at the top, they cheered.

Robotics and Mechatronics Professors Atakan Varol and Almas Shintemirov assigned the competition as homework for the last two weeks of the students’ “Introduction to Robotics” course.

“It’s much better in (learning about) robotics to implement real-world projects,” said Varol, a native of Turkey who did artificial-limb research at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.

The hands-on, learning-by-doing approach that Nazarbayev University is taking means that robotics students will take 12 or 13 project-based courses before finishing, Varol said.

The hands-on approach is also a forte of the other disciplines in the School of Science and Technology – biology, biomedicine, chemistry, physics, computational science and mathematics.

When they graduate in three years, the robotics students should have the skills to design and build industrial robots, cars that can run without a driver or flying robots, Varol said.

Hopefully they’ll even be able to build “micro-scale robots – those you can only see under a microscope,” he said.

When all of Nazarbayev University’s robotics equipment arrives in coming months from the United States, Europe and other tech havens, “only a few institutions in the world will have similar equipment,” Varol said.

The 28 students in the robotics competition used Lego Robotics kits to create their machines. Each kit included a battery as a power supply.

“When we announced the project, the students were not certain whether they could do it or not,” said Shintemirov, a native of Pavlodar who earned a Ph.D. in electrical engineering and electronics at Britain’s University of Liverpool. “But they’ve done well.”

Students could design robots from scratch, using plastic Lego building blocks as bodies plus the kits’ power supply, wheels and other components. Or they could find a robot design on the Internet, then modify it.

The software for programming the robots was Microsoft Robotics Developer Studio, which could be downloaded for free, Varol said.

 Student Julia Nekhoroshih said competitors could use one of three sensors to steer their robots – sonars, color sensors or light sensors.

Sonar robots used sound waves to locate walls they needed to stay away from.  Color-sensor robots were programmed to follow colors on the floor of the wheelchair ramp. And light-sensor robots were programmed to follow light or dark parts of the floor.

Student Ainur  Seidullayeva credited Tasbolat Taunyazov with being the “super brain” behind her team’s second-place finish.

Tasbolat said the team had to overcome a lot of obstacles to achieve success, though.

The team found what it thought was an appropriate robot design on the Internet. But that design, which “looked like a motorcycle,” didn’t work, Tasbolat said. So it was back to the drawing board.

The team “stayed at the university until 6 o’clock in the morning” on the day of the competition, Ainur said. It was the same with most of the 28 students.

Arslan Kaspakov, whose team finished in first place, said students took the competition seriously, but there were a lot of lighter moments.

His team constantly bounced ideas off each other, with disagreement part of the process. “The conversation could get funny,” he said.

Students even tried to gain an edge by scoping out the approaches that competitors were taking, Kaspakov said.

He described the good-natured intelligence gathering as being “sort of like a detective.”

In the end, Aslan and his teammates Ibrakhim Argynbekov, Bauyrzhan Aubakir and Yerkanat Nurmakhanov took the blue ribbon, with their robot climbing up the wheelchair ramp in 1 minute and 38 seconds.

The second-place team, with a time of 2 minutes and 5 seconds, consisted of Ainur Seidullayeva, Tasbolat Taunyazov,KamazhayTulkibayeva and Zhansaya Zhapar.

The third-place team, whose robot finished in 2 minutes and 57 seconds, was composed of Abylay Amangaliyev, Saltanat Karazhigitova and Shingiskhan Muratbekuly,

The other teams in the competition included:

1.  Aigerim Kalysheva, Akim Kapsalyamov, Anton Ogay.

2. Almaskhan Baimyshev, Tair Sultanbekov, Talgat Saribayev.

3. Daulet Mamytov, Julia Nekhoroshih, Yekaterina Ponomarenko, Talgat Ospanov.

4. Margulan Issa, Amina Keldibek, Kenzhegali Nurgaliyev.

5. Kudryatzhan Arziyev, Yesbol Kulanbekov, Aktlek Mukhtassyrov, Bibigul Shektybayeva.

In the end, all of the students were winners for engaging in the kind of practical learning that is sure to stick with them.

The people of Kazakhstan will be even bigger winners than the students over the long haul. That’s because they will benefit from the industries and products that Nazarbayev University graduates will be creating.

 

Link to Nazarbayev University: http://nu.edu.kz

Link to School of Science and Technology at Nazarbayev University: http://sst.nu.edu.kz


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