Cadet competes in international design competition

  • Published
  • By Capt. Matt Booth, Lt. Col. Jeff McGuirk
  • U.S. Air Force Academy Electrical and Computer Engineering Department
Cadet 4th Class Dominic Celiano was not like most fourth class cadets in January.

Instead of counting down the days until Recognition, he attended the Air Force Academy's Automata Club meetings where he learned about the Digilent Design Contest, a competition where students present their digital design or electrical engineering projects to industry experts and get feedback for their work.

Celiano approached Daniel Neebel, a ECE Department visiting professor, with an idea.

"Dom had a project in mind where he'd take a simple toy car, add motors to drive the wheels, mount various sensors to it, and develop a control algorithm to allow the car to follow a set path and avoid obstacles," Neebel said. "This is a very complex idea, especially for someone who is only a freshman in college."

Celiano chose the project it has real-world applications and represents a bigger idea, he said.

"Google had to start somewhere with their automated cars," he said. "This project also allowed me to dig into the basics of microcontroller design and operation."

The seed was planted, and Celiano went to work. He first had to learn basic microcontroller theory, a topic not covered until his junior year.

"He did a lot of the work on his own," Neebel said. "We met and brainstormed a bit on how to build the car and what kinds of sensors he could use. I suggested some readings and references from the web, and he'd come to me when he had a question. But for the most part, he learned the basics on his own. He's a very independent learner."

Once he understood the theory, Celiano obtained the hardware, interfacing the sensors and writing control code. Then, the process of testing and trouble-shooting each piece started.

"John Evans, one of the technicians in the ECE department, was a huge help when I was debugging various parts of my design," Celiano said. "I don't think I could have gotten everything to work without him."

Celiano completed his design and traveled to New York City. He presented his work to the judges and answered questions from technical experts.

To his surprise, he earned second place and received an invitation to the international competition in Shanghai in August.

This created a problem as Nebel, his project mentor, was set to return to his host university in June. Fortunately, Capt. James Trimble of the 94th Flying Training Squadron, came to the rescue.

"Captain Trimble is one of our adjunct faculty," said Col. Jeff Butler, ECE head. "He's assigned to the ninety-fourth, but he's been a huge help to my department, teaching a course and volunteering his time to the Automata Club. One of Captain Trimble's hobbies is robotics, so he was a natural fit to mentor Celiano following Dr. Neebel's departure."

Trimble worked with Celiano this summer and accompanied him to Shanghai. Celiano presented his work and fielded questions, earning 10th place in the competition.

"I'm so happy I was able to do this. Not only did I get this great experience traveling to China ... but hands-on learning is the best kind," he said. "I know lecture and theory are important, but this was simply fun."

Trimble agreed.

"What Cadet Celiano did as a freshman is an amazing achievement," he said. "He showed great poise when presenting to the international panel. He could not have been a better Air Force Academy representative."

So what's next for now-Cadet 3rd Class Celiano? Dr. John Ciezki, the head of the Automata Club hopes for more success in national competitions.

"There's a micro-mouse competition in March. The students will design an automated mouse, place it in a 10-foot-by 10-foot grid, and it must perform various activities. It's a more complex and technically challenging problem than Celiano 's first project, but I'm confident we can get something to work."

Celiano is now working on the wheel-control system and is putting to use all he's learned in the past year.

"I definitely want to continue working in this field," he said. "There's no limit to what we can do with robotics."