Robotic wheelchair competition unleashes student creativity

  • Published
  • By Holly Jordan
  • AFRL Materials and Manufacturing Directorate

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio – AFRL researchers are looking to tap into the creativity of the next generation of researchers through a project that turns an ordinary motorized wheelchair into a robotic security guard.

As part of the Robotic Sentry Challenge, the Materials and Manufacturing Directorate is asking enterprising students to build a robotic perimeter guard using an electric wheelchair as the design platform. It’s a project that exercises the students’ ability to think from a design perspective and refine problem-solving skills.

The project is part of the larger AFRL Student Challenge, a program through which teams of college seniors gain experience in aerospace engineering by taking on one of a variety of real-world design scenarios. The goal of the program is to give students a chance to flex their engineering muscles while learning more about working on projects relevant to the Air Force.

But according to Rick Meyers, AFRL Program Manager for Automation and Robotics, the program is so much more than that. He says it also gives researchers a chance to get to know the “next generation” of researchers. As the AFRL coordinator of the Robotic Sentry Challenge, he works closely with the student teams, getting a first-hand glimpse into their creative talents.

“We try to leverage their creativity as much as possible,” said Meyers, adding that this project and similar outreach efforts have resulted in the hiring of talented and innovative young engineers.

Through the Robotic Sentry Challenge, students are asked to use an existing platform, in this case, a motorized wheelchair donated by Minnesota-based manufacturer Action Trackchair for the AFRL Student Challenge. The students modify the wheelchair to provide round-the-clock security coverage for a hypothetical secured facility.  Students have to take into consideration factors such as rough terrain, extreme temperatures, snow accumulation, battery life, and response time, among many others. They also have to integrate sensors and communications equipment and make sure the robot sentry is sufficiently rugged for the job at hand. 

The list of requirements makes the challenge a daunting task, but one Meyers says the students are well suited for. “It is a commitment and a challenge, but it gives them a chance to flex their muscles in a real-world research scenario.”

Meyers says some innovative ideas have emerged from these type of student projects over the years, and AFRL has leveraged and built upon some of the ideas for their own research efforts. The students use one of the same open source robotics software platforms that he and his team use, and students share their results and their developments.  Meyers says AFRL has in turn used this open source software for their own research and development efforts. In this way the students and AFRL researchers form a synergistic alliance.

Worcester Polytechnic Institute near Boston is the lone participant in the Robotic Sentry portion of the AFRL Student Challenge this year, but the expectations remain as high as ever.

“We regularly engage with the students, who update us on their design,” said Meyers. “We provide feedback, but not so much so that it gives them a roadmap.  We never give them a solution; we ask them what they think. The results are impressive, and the teams always do a good job.”

This year, Meyers expects to travel to Worchester, Mass., to evaluate the students’ design and discuss the project, the achievements, and the lessons learned.  From there, he will evaluate the technology advancements the students have made and assess the possibility of integrating elements of their work into current or future AFRL efforts.  Meyers says if one small student advancement can benefit the Air Force or if a student becomes interested in working for AFRL, it is an effort well-achieved.

To learn more about the Robotic Sentry Challenge or any of the other AFRL Student Challenge projects, visit