'Inspiration and innovation' power students' robot

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- What do a basketball, a cart on wheels and a computer the size of a credit card all have in common?

They are the heart and soul of SAMM, the newest member of the Schreyer Honors College.

SAMM is a robot built by Schreyer Scholars Ben Sattler and Karthik Pillutla to promote the Schreyer Honors College’s upcoming Shaping the Future Summit. The theme of the summit, being held Tuesday, April 1, is “The Impact of Innovation.” Since late in the fall semester, Sattler and Pillutla, both enrolled in the College of Engineering, have been hard at work putting their MacGyver chops to the test.

“We thought it would be a really interesting way to market such an event that’s focused on new technology, sustainability and innovation,” Pillutla said. “We wanted to make a symbol for the event that tied into those three concepts. It’s something that we can personally learn a lot from and have fun doing.”

“SAMM stands for Shaping And Moving Mountains,” Sattler added. “We were trying to find a name that fit with the theme of inspiration and innovation. The Summit logo has these Ms in it that look like mountains, and it came to be from there.”

The duo worked on the project mostly on the weekends in the basement of Atherton Hall. They estimate that they have dedicated about four to five hours a week to SAMM, with additional support from the SHC’S IT staff.

The robot has a computer screen for a face. Once it’s fully operational, it will be able to wave, play a song or video clip, and move around. The idea is to have SAMM be a part of promotional events over the next week leading up to the summit.

“I know that my time will have been spent well if people see the robot and get excited about the summit and want to see more,” Pillutla said.

The two found the majority of SAMM’s parts at Lion Surplus, a salvage supplier on campus. SAMM’s power source — a 12-volt battery, similar to what runs lights or radio in a car — was donated by Joel Anstrom in the College of Engineering. One of SAMM’s few new parts is a microcomputer, coded by Pillutla and Sattler, that controls its actions.

Instead of gears and chains powering SAMM’s moves, there is a blue-and-white Penn State basketball — donated by the men’s basketball team — and friction wheels. As the basketball rolls, it moves friction wheels on each of the motors — one motor goes front/back and the other goes left/right, and they can be combined to add rotational motion or make it steer.

“That’s one of the coolest pieces,” Pillutla said.

“The initial budget for the robot was $150, but we ended up spending $95. We got the recycled parts from salvage for a total of $10, so really the only new things we had to buy were the computer parts,” Sattler said.

One of the biggest challenges that has been learning and adapting skills to meet the needs of the project.

“We have different skillsets based on coding, building and circuitry,” Pillutla said. “We had to learn how to do various tasks for each step of the robot.”

“We both wanted to teach the other person what we were doing,” Sattler added. “We could have easily divided and conquered and split up the robot, but I didn’t want to just do the coding and have Karthik just do the circuitry. We wanted to make sure we were learning everything we could.“

The best part so far? “The little insignificant things,” Pillutla said. “The first time we got a tiny little motor to move back and forth meant a lot for the scope of the project and what we’ve learned to be able to make SAMM happen.”

“I want students to say, ‘Wow, I can’t believe someone built that,’” Sattler said.

The innovation won’t stop after the 2014 Summit. The two plan for SAMM to be a part of the 2015 Summit and beyond.

“Next year, it will do a few more things,” Sattler said. “Two years from now, who knows where technology capabilities may be? There may be something we never even thought we’d be able to do. In a few years, we will have a really awesome robot.”

SAMM will be at the HUB-Robeson Center from 12:30 to 2:30 p.m. Friday (March 28) at the Schreyer Honors College's table promoting the "Shaping the Future Summit." 

For more information about the 2014 "Shaping the Future Summit: The Impact of Innovation" and the keynote event with XPRIZE CEO Peter H. Diamandis, visit futuresummit.psu.edu.

Last Updated April 09, 2014