Brian Schaaf: Robotics Junkie Loves Hands-On Work

Graduation Year: 2004

Degree at Duke:
Bachelor of Science

Major/Program:
Mechanical Engineering

Career Highlights:

Brian Schaaf found his calling during his three semesters in the Pratt Engineering Undergraduate Research Fellows program when he built a mobile robotic research platform and developed the basic operating software.

His goal was to create a mobile and completely autonomous robot. In an autonomous robot, once the instructions are programmed, the robot takes off and keeps going until it reaches the target and finishes its "mission." Hopefully. If the programming and sensors aren't up to the task, the robot can't finish the mission.

Schaaf, from Mission Viejo, California, began his project by cannibalizing an off-the-shelf remote controlled car to get the drive train and then relocating the gears and gearbox. Then he started adding sensors to give his robot eyes, an unflagging sense of direction, and a reactive sense of touch.

His micro-mobile robot is loaded down with ground penetrating radar, infrared rangers to sense distance up to 30 inches, infrared proximity detectors, sonar accurate up to 30 feet, a pyro sensor to detect heat, a bump sensor to register obstacles, and a light sensor. He has also added a global positioning system to help the robot get around obstacles and reorient itself towards the target.

"For me, the most difficult part was the software programming," said Schaaf. "That's just not my area of expertise."

Though Schaaf's days on the project are over, he hopes eventually to see a wireless PDA with program path planning incorporated into the robot design.

"I went into engineering instead of physics because I was looking for something I could get my hands on things," said Schaaf. "Through this project, I've learned a lot about designing things, and how to be very creative in solving problems," said Schaaf.

"When you're involved in hands-on design, you think more," said Schaaf. "Until you are actually making something you just don't understand the implications of material strengths and weaknesses, sizing limitations, etc. It all becomes clear when you're physically working on a design."

Schaaf spent his senior year working on three different design projects, one of which was a retractable pole for a snowboard.

"I think that the reason most snowboarders are younger people is because there's a lot of sitting down and getting back up in snowboarding. It's just too tiring for many people, and it's hard on the knees," said Schaaf.

His retractable pole is essentially a ski pole that telescopes down to about 16 inches. He designed it to store along the outside of the snowboarder's calf. "You shake it out to get a full-sized ski pole, and then twist the handle to retract it for storage," he explains.

He also designed a mechanized basketball robot that made it to the third round of this year's annual March Mayhem Mechanical Engineering Design contest. His robot, designed with Chris Dillenbeck, featured an innovative vertical conveyor belt that carried the balls up, over and then into the basket.

Each of these design projects reinforced for Schaaf that engineering was the right career choice for him, and wishes he could have been involved in hands-on work earlier.

Schaaf has been accepted MIT Masters program in Aerospace Robotics hoping to eventually get a PhD after his masters. He will be working in MIT's Draper lab as a research assistant on an autonomous fighter aircraft project.

Originally published Spring 2004