AU engineering students take lessons out of the classroom, out on the lawn

Published: Jul 7, 2008 1:00:00 AM
Media Contact: Amy Weaver,, 334-737-2534

Source: Opelika/Auburn News

AU Lawnmower team

From left, co-advisors Calvin Cutshaw and Mark Nelms, graduate student Jordan Britt, senior Joe Davis and graduate student Luke Edwards show off their autonomous lawnmower , which placed second in a competition in Ohio.

A team of Auburn University engineering students earned much more than $1,500 for second place at the fifth annual ION Robotic Lawn Mower Competition in Ohio last month.

The contest proved to be a chance to demonstrate what they had learned after years at Auburn and in the six months it took them to build an autonomous machine.

"If I hadn't done this, I would be (in) over my head (in classes) now," graduate student Jordan Britt said. "Now, I feel much more comfortable jumping into new things."

Britt was one of three students who approached Dr. Mark Nelms, a professor of electrical and computer engineering, in December about participating in the contest for their senior design project. There was also the chance for prize money, Britt said. This was the first time AU participated in the contest, which is sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory, Honeywell and the Institute of Navigation's satellite division.

Nelms, who's been involved in similar competitions in the past, wholeheartedly supported Auburn's participation. He and Calvin Cutshaw served as co-advisers.

"It's one thing to get the theory in the classroom," he said. "It's another to actually use it."

The base for the machine, a radio-controlled lawn mower, was donated to the university by Briggs & Stratton. The challenge, posed to the student group which included Britt, Joe Davis and Luke Edwards, was to modify it so it could cut the grass within a designated area, autonomously and unmanned.

"It's kind of like one person has the map and the driver's eyes are closed," Britt said.

Since this was the first year for AU, Nelms enrolled the team in basic autonomous mowing instead of advanced mowing. Nelms said each machine had 20 minutes to mow as much of the area, with one stationary obstacle, as possible. Teams had only two chances to restart the mowers.

"Well, we used both restarts," Britt said, with a snicker. "It wasn't as slick as we would have liked, but it got the job done."

Auburn's mower may have clipped the garbage can obstacle, but it cut 50 percent of the grass in the allotted area. It was enough to win second place and $1,500 in prize money. They were also judged on a technical report and presentation on the design.

"And they all got a good grade, yes," Nelms said.