Robotics Competitions

By Wenchao Liu

In 2004, an agency in the Defense Department decided to sponsor a competition, where self-driving cars would compete with each other in a dessert. Short for DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency was interested in the technology because they wanted to put it in their military vehicles. Many institutions participated in the competition, and none completed the course. In 2005, DARPA decided to sponsor the competition again, and this time, more teams completed the course. In 2006, DARPA decided to take a break, and came back in 2007, where teams were competing in an urban environment. This series of events eventually jump-started the self-driving car industry, and many participants are still living in the past and working on the technology.

Fast forward a decade to 2017, I was a happy college student at Lawrence with a newly-built wall-following RC car. During the course of my project, I often bought electronics from Sparkfun. One day I noticed that they were hosting an Autonomous Vehicle Competition, AVC in short. I decided to enter, and did not do well. Well, I did so badly that I didn’t even participate, because I knew my car wouldn’t go far. Some participants’ cars didn’t even spin at the start line, and I was wondering if they anticipated that. If they did, did they just want to show everyone that they had a car?

In the summer of 2018, I was working on an internship, and took a day off to participate the AVC again. It was their 10th year, and I definitely won the participation award. Well, I didn’t even win the participation award, because, again, I didn’t participate. Many teams, again, wanted to show that they had a car, although it wasn’t even spinning. I saw some new faces, and some familiar faces. I told myself that I would keep coming back.

The DARPA challenges gave birth to the self-driving car industry, and AVC inspired me to keep working on my RC car. One of the reasons that those competitions are so fun to me is that you can get to know people. There are other software competitions, but those competitions don’t require you to be physically present somewhere. Robotics competitions do!

There are many regional and national robotics competitions. If you want to find out what is happening in your area, just search on the Internet, especially on Meetup. Those happen mostly weekly or monthly. For instance, there’s a monthly robot RC car competition in Oakland. There are also national ones that happen annually. I mentioned the AVC earlier, which is in Denver. There is a similar one sponsored by University of Pennsylvania. If you want more variety of competitions, there is the National Robotics Challenge in Ohio. Whatever robot you are building, you should definitely try finding a competition, because you will meet interesting people and win at least the participation award!

Maker Competencies

To help our faculty create assignments that use the makerspace and have easily assessable outcomes, we’ve put together some Maker Competencies.

Click on image to see a larger version of the competencies in Flickr.


  • Learns new equipment or technology and is able to use with minimal supervision
  • Exhibits a strong enough grasp of new skills to assist peers with newly-acquired knowledge


  • Applies meaning to projects as tied to coursework
  • Uses abstract thinking to apply a tool or technology in a new way to carry out task
  • Employs creative thinking and problem solving to arrive at end product


  • Follows multi-step, procedure-based tasks in the correct order
  • Realizes an idea from concept to finished project


  • Uses tools in a safe and respectful manner
  • Demonstrates care and neatness with equipment and shared space
  • Respects copyright and intellectual property, gives credit when appropriate
  • Shows empathy toward others by following rules of the space

We hope these competencies will help makerspace educators, teachers, professors, etc. come up with fun, inspiring, hands-on assignments with outcomes that can be easily assessed!

AR & VR Technology

By Nijesh Upreti

Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) are a buzz words these days; literally every magazine and newspaper has articles boasting the AR/VR craze. But where do we really stand on the AR/VR development? What are its implications? And what sort of applications should we really seek? These are questions troubling the scientists and developers alike who delve deeper into their disciplines to invent and design technologies that are on par with current technological needs.

Just as a brief overview: VR is a interactive technology generated within a simulated environment that embraces the elements of real world but limits interactions within the digital. AR on the other hand is a technology that allows the augmentation of our everyday interaction with real world with various sensory modalities such haptics, auditory or visual. We are going to alternate between both technological sides to post mixed finding on the subject matter. 

How is the art world benefited by the recent advances in VR/AR technology?
Recently a digital museum opened in Tokyo, Japan. This museum is a collaborative work of individuals from various disciplines including computer science, art, and human-computer interaction to name a few. The museum, hosted in a space of 10,000 square meter, is operated by using the about 520 computers and 470 projectors working in sync to create amazing visual experience for the visitors.

VR as an Art Medium
Recent advances in VR technology has paved ways for exploring the art domain with mediums that are far from the traditional. One such technological breakthrough is the idea of art in 3D digital space. Google’s Tilt brush technology combined with commercially available VR headsets like HTC VIVE and OCULUS RIFT could equip artists with an entirely new way to explore the art world.

From Wall-Following to Full Autonomy

By Wenchao Liu

When I was a happy college student at Lawrence, I made a wall-following RC car. The project was truly a blessing, because it led me to many amazing people such as Prof. Stoneking and Angela. My theoretical-physicist-turned-computer-scientist professor, Prof. Gregg, helped me a lot during the process as well. My presentation day was one of my proudest days, as I was showing a room of my professors that I was actually not that dumb. 

It’s been a year since that presentation day, and I am still living in the past. Currently I am building the second version of the car, following instructions on The second version has quite a few improvements over the first one, and I have learned quite a lot so far. This post is about such improvements and what I plan to do in the future. It’s like the project proposal I gave in college, which wasn’t fully executed.

The most obvious improvement is a mechanical one. The previous build has two layers of plastics, which are connected also by plastics. As a result, the build is not rugged and glue was frequently applied. The new build has only one layer of plastics, and it’s mounted on a lower level than the base layer of the old build.

Just One Layer!

The electrical improvement is less obvious, but still visible. I had to changed the brushed motor to a brushless one, and to buy a VESC to control that. Thus, a Teensy micro-controller is not longer needed, as the computer can just control the VESC directly. The second build also uses an Orbitty carrier board, which has a smaller form factor than the previous one. Form factor; what a jargon word!

Can you tell which one is the current one?

The software improvement is not even visible as all, but it’s always been most frustrating. Although the only functionality I had with the previous build was wall-following, the car could actually do a lot more. The main functionalities I am trying to implement now are mapping with Lidar, localizing the car, generating and following waypoints. That’s where the stops, but I won’t stop learning for a long time!

Stay tuned!