College of Engineering News • Iowa State University

Robotics Club Participates in 13th Annual Autonomous Snowplow Competition

Robotic snowplow pushing snow autonomously.

Early this year, members of the ISU Robotics Club placed 5th at the 13th Annual Autonomous Snowplow Competition ( held January 20-21, 2023 at Dunwoody College of Technology in Minneapolis, MN.

Robotics Club team photo with team advisor.

The traveling team was comprised of seven students – four Software Engineering students, Darren Anderson (SE ’22 alum), Jaden Forde, Ryan Sand, and Sergio Perez Valentin; one Computer Science student, Sean Frett; and two Mechanical Engineering students, Ryan Madigan and Parker Wilson. While many students contributed to the project, this team took the snowplow to competition.

When Covid began in Spring 2020, the snowplow project was stopped. Resuming the project with all new people and almost zero knowledge was challenging. The Robotics Club team began meeting at least once a week for a couple of hours starting in Fall 2021. Their efforts equaled almost 150 hours in meeting time alone. This did not include work done outside of meetings. In addition, there were some longer work sessions in the weeks leading up to the competition.

Fortunately, the team began their efforts with a very nice steel chassis, LIDAR system, and plow blade from the previous project group. The project involved electrical and wiring, assembly of components, and an entire code system built on Robot Operating System and Python using vision data from the LIDAR. Much of this work was done in a shop in the basement of the ISU Student Innovation Center. Over time, the device was able to detect obstacles, plan paths to push snow around them, and keep track of positions. Very dedicated team members working together with different skill sets were able to create a snowplow to push some snow.

Students walk behind robotic snow plow pushing snow at contest.

The team left early Friday morning and arrived around midday to get situated and go through safety checks and do some final testing. There was a nice dinner Friday evening with team poster presentations for judges and other teams. Saturday was when the real fun began – competition day. Each participating team did one run in the morning and one in the afternoon using snowplows they built to clear a 1×10 meter field of snow while avoiding randomly placed obstacles. Judging was also based on the snowplow design presented via the Friday evening poster presentations.

Snowplow contestants pose together in a group shot outside the Dunwoods college building.

“It was just really cool to finally see the robot in action. We had put so much work into it in the weeks before, but we never actually pushed any snow until the competition day.” says Jaden Forde, co-Director for the Autonomous Snowplow Project.

The team was able to push snow with their 600 lb.plow and avoid obstacles using the machine’s LIDAR. The ISU Robotics Club team members also enjoyed talking to the other teams about similarities and differences between their designs.

Robotic snowplow pushing snow autonomously.

“I was so glad we were able to compete in my last semester after a couple of years of hard work,” says Jaden. Jaden plans to graduate with a degree in Software Engineering in Spring 2023.