Students creating solutions: IdaBot
Entering his junior year as an engineering major, Quentin Frederick has spent the summer researching with his professors and peers on two department projects: RFTSat and IdaBot. IdaBot is a utility robot designed to read RFID tags for autonomous navigation and chemical application.
Q. Hi, Quentin. We heard you were a part of the IdaBot summer research this year. What has this research entailed?
A. A large part of the work I did was adapting an algorithm to take raw data from the RFID tags and return an estimate of the distance to each tag. Dr. Joshua Griffin, my adviser on this project, had co-authored a paper containing this algorithm. I got to take that mathematical technique and adapt it for use in a realistic setting—a vineyard. The most enjoyable part of this work was using mathematics, coding, and other skills, not as a homework exercise, but as minor but necessary steps in developing a tangible result.
Q. So, why is this research important?
A. Today, RFID tags are mostly used for inventory and identification purposes—emphasizing the information stored on the tag. Using them with or as sensors—utilizing their location, convenience, or energy—is comparatively scarce. IdaBot explores just one specific application of a largely untapped technology.
Q. What’s been the most valuable part of this experience for you?
A. I think that the strengthening of my problem-solving ability is most valuable—I'm certain to use it long after I have forgotten the specific problems. Dealing with a single issue will teach one how to handle that issue. Dealing with a few dozen gives one intuition for how to approach learning how to resolve the next problem.
Q. At many universities, it’s rare for undergraduate students to have opportunities to conduct applicable research alongside professors. What has this experience been like?
A. One sees an obscure facet of a professor on a project—as a coworker as well as an expert in the profession. Sometimes, when facing a completely new problem, a student's solution can be just as valid as a professor's. As an engineering major, I knew that I was stepping onto new ground, so to speak, when my professors didn't have the answers or know exactly where to find them. Yet there were other times when I explained a problem that had plagued me for hours, and a professor came up with a solution in a matter of seconds.
Engineering research is an entirely different skill than the majority of what is taught in the classroom. In the class, one sharpens the tools (analysis, design, decision-making); on the project, one builds with them. It was good to learn research from experienced researchers.
Q. Do you think this experience will benefit you in the future?
A. Yes. I am considering concentrating in Agricultural Engineering, and the IdaBot project would be a great introduction to a career in applying automation to how we grow food. Also, I accumulated much experience with a few engineering software tools, MATLAB and CCS. These are very handy regardless of engineering concentration.
Q. So, what do you do in your spare time?
A. It may seem cliche for an engineering major, but I like to design and build miscellaneous items in my spare time. Something about the experience of seeing a nebulous daydream in my head condense into a functional item or system never seems to lose its appeal to me. In fact, this is probably why I majored in engineering.