Robot Designed by Pratt Students Wins Wall Climb

A 2.5-pound robot named "Wallter" designed by Pratt School of Engineering students at Duke has won for the second year in a row an international wall-crawling robotics competition held in London.

Wallter, now a two-year-old, competed against university teams from the United Kingdom, Germany and Italy this year to win a $900 prize at the 8th International Conference on Climbing and Walking Robots Sept. 12-15. Each team's robot was required to move from the floor to a magnetic wall, move around obstacles on the wall, cross a raised bar and then stop at the ceiling.

"The competition was similar to last year's, so we had to make several small changes to Wallter's design in order to win again this year. We focused on improving the software and our sensors," said mechanical engineering senior Brian Hilgeford.

"Duke has really set the bar in this competition. In a way that's kind of funny because walking and wall-crawling robots are really popular in Asia and Europe but haven't really taken off in the U.S.," said Jason Janet, an adjunct associate professor in Duke's electrical and computer engineering department and a Duke Robotics Club adviser.

The conference and competition are intended to stimulate design innovation in wall-crawling robotics that can be used for security and safety-related job such as looking for cracks in a support beam or even finding improvised explosives.

Smaller than a phone book, Wallter hugs the wall using a suctioning "tornado in a cup" produced by a spinning blade. The suction system was designed by team sponsor Vortex HC, LLC in Morrisville, N.C. Magnets enable Wallter to stay on the wall while crossing the raised bar, and three ultrasonic sensors enable it to detect and avoid obstacles. Changes made to Wallter's software enable the robot to determine the difference between an obstacle and the ceiling.

"Wallter bounces blasts of high frequency sound off nearby objects in order to figure out whether he needs to turn to avoid an obstacle," said Hilgeford. "We also modified the software this year so that he moves in an arc around an obstacle instead of making a bunch of small course corrections."

"We can also make Wallter more or less sensitive to his surroundings -- depending on what kind of task he is performing. We might want him to stay pretty far away from objects, so we can have him turn away before he gets within a foot of an obstacle," Hilgeford said.

Wallter was designed by engineering students at Duke's Pratt School of Engineering through the Duke Robotics Club. The team that traveled to London for the competition included Hilgeford, electrical and computer engineering/computer science sophomore Gareth Guvanasen, Pratt graduate Jamaal Brown and Brian Burney, a former Pratt staff member who is now a North Carolina State University graduate student and employee at Vortex HC. Last year's team included Burney, mechanical engineering senior Julien Finlay and Pratt graduates Andrew Meyerson and Kevin Parker.

The Duke Robotics Club took fourth place this summer in an international underwater vehicle competition and is part of the Carnegie Mellon University Red Team trying to win $2 million at the DARPA Grand Challenge autonomous vehicle race in October.

Funding for Wallter and Duke's participation in the competition came from the Lord Foundation and Vortex HC.