Sparkfun’s AVC 2014: Robots, Copters, And Red Balloons Of Death, Oh My!


Registration is open for Sparkfun’s 2014 Autonomous Vehicle Competition (AVC)! Every year the fine folks at Sparkfun invite people to bring their robots, rovers, and drones  to Colorado to see who is the king of the hill – or reservoir as the case may be. We see plenty of robots here at Hackaday, but precious few of them are autonomous. To us that means capable of completing complex tasks without human intervention. Sparkfun has spent the last five years working toward changing that. Each year the robots get more complex and complete increasingly difficult tasks.

The competition is essentially a race through the Boulder reservoir. Time is key, though there are multiple ways to gain bonus points. For aerial vehicles there are two classes: fixed and rotary wing. Planes fall under the fixed wing category. Helicopters, gyrocopters, tricopters, quadcopters, and beyond fall into rotary wing. We’re holding out hope that e-volo shows up with their Octadecacopter. Ground vehicles have a few more class options. Micro/PBR class is for robots with a build cost less than $350 total, or small enough to fit into box that’s 10″x6″x4″. The doping class is unlimited. Sparkfun even mentions costs over $1kUSD+, and weights over 25LBS. Non-Traditional Locomotion class is for walkers, WildCats and the like. Peloton is Sparkfun’s class for robots that don’t fit into the other classes.

Sparkfun is also making a few changes to the course this year. A white chalk line will be drawn through the course, so robots don’t have to rely on GPS alone for navigation. We’re hoping to see at least a few vision systems using that chalk line. Aerial robots will have to contend with three “Red Balloons of Death”. Robots can navigate around the balloons without penalty. The balloons can be bumped or even popped for bonus points, but the robot must do this with its own body. Projectile weapons are not allowed. To say we’re excited about the AVC would be an understatement. As much as we enjoy watching the big players at competitions like the DARPA Robotics Challenge, we love seeing individuals and small teams of hobbyists compete every year at the AVC. Click on past the break for Sparkfun’s AVC 2013 wrap up video.

8 thoughts on “Sparkfun’s AVC 2014: Robots, Copters, And Red Balloons Of Death, Oh My!

  1. This is very interesting and an area I’ve been well involved with doing fixed wing R/C since the mid 70’s, Club President, AMA, etc., yadda, yadda all boring and tedious, but included experimenting with rudimentary drones based on RDF and crude altimeters plus wing-leveler electronics the sailplane guys pioneered using americium-241. Gyros weren’t around because of price and weight but not needed as we used positively stable aircraft designs instead, and flux-gate magnetometer components for a compass easily outpriced an engine so were almost never seen. We had to hand-build a 6502 board for an autopilot.

    Now… all the technology nowdays will work just fine and sure beats anything we ever pulled off… and you’ll all do it better than we ever could… some say we all stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before (not me) but you know, ardupilot and whatever, you’ll succeed… but there’s one thing that bothers me. That fixed-wing plane flies at 60 mph for landing/stall speed and is doing 120mph or so most of the time. With a nice .60 cubic inch alcohol/nitro aluminum engine at the front they tend to be like armor piercing warheads to cars and miss people only because they can duck and run. Lord help us all if you got a gasoline fueled quadra like on a weed-whacker with 20″ prop. A white gas fueled ramjet I shudder to imagine…

    You be careful out there! I’m rooting for ya! But we’re NOT all in this together. Leave the kids at home, and I’m staying home too. Put safety at the top of your list by keeping head’s up and scanning… Spectators need to stay alert and be educated.

    This event will be a blast! Wish I could be there. Staying home on purpose. I’m envious! Have fun.

    1. Hey Biomed, I’m a long time hobbyist as well. My first plane was a Carl Goldberg Eaglet, back when kits were kits. :) The AVC rules due state that every aerial entrant must have a manual takeover function. Entrants flying toward the crowd would be ordered to switch over to manual control. I realize that won’t fix every situation, as pilot error and mechanical failure do happen. As far as 1/4 scale quadra/zenoah models – or even .60 sized glow fuel powered models, I don’t have the full stats on the previous years, but I don’t think anyone has ever entered with one. That’s mainly due to the design of the contest – it’s a relatively small area that favors precision flying. Higher speed models means everything happens faster – exactly what you DON’T want for an autopilot. Electric planes capable of slow flight seem to be the name of the game here. That said, I’ve met several of the sparkfun staff, and know that they would take whatever steps are necessary to keep the crowd safe at the event. If someone did show up with a model that wasn’t safe for the venue, they wouldn’t let it fly.
      I’d love to hear more about the americium-241 leveling systems. I used one of the early PIR based leveling systems back in the early 2000’s for some aerial photography work. Cheap gyros have really revolutionized our hobby!

      1. The voltage differential that exists between the edge of the atmosphere and solid earth, often described as like layers of an onion but measuring hundreds or thousands of volts at extreme impedance requiring an ionization detector. Tilting the wings results in a voltage difference measured from wing tip to wing tip of hundreds of volts…. or nose to tail, but the detector has a limited lifetime. It’s the same ionization detector used in smoke detectors using americium-241, modified slightly. There were several suppliers selling these for the soaring enthusiasts and maybe still are, mostly as a turnkey system giving servo pulse-width output but having limited lifetime. Instructions for modifying the smoke alarm detectors were available in popular R/C mags till pointed out that this was not acceptable behavior with isotopes. Personally observed many variants working quite admirably with a 10 or so month fully reliable life span. Won’t admit to ever touching one.

        I trust Sparkfun completely and without reservation, that’s beyond question at all and mean zero slight to them in any way. I just know what flying objects do when communication drops so not under continual and direct human control and now relying on the influence of glitch and fu-bar. We keep improving technology cause it keeps screwing up…. We are not as smart as we seem. Why at this point my mind jumps to a sitcom with a guy in ER with the robot…. just dunno. A nurse, as usual, made the only good decision.

  2. I commend their rules on no projectile weapons. However I was struck with the image of a katana weilding UAV swinging around for a second pass at a balloon. Interestingly enough Daniel Suarez wrote a pair of books addressing just that. Freedom and Daemon have it all; automated sword weilding robots, augmented reality, meat space MMORPGs, and death by internet.

  3. This competition is lots of fun. I’m hoping to enter again this year for the 4th time. My robot is at 30 seconds on the video. It uses gravity to give the front wheel torque by changing the wheels shape into oval. I wanted to redesign it with a bigger wheel and use bearings this time, but time is running short, so I may have to enter the same bot again.

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