The third-year project journey

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Though we had heard about it and had friends who had completed the same in previous years, I don’t think my colleagues and I were completely sure of what to expect from the third year project experience.  We were sure of one thing though; it was going to be a whole new experience matched by none other we had encountered thus far in our degree.

For sure, it would involve – as does everything else in ECS – a lot of hard work and “(wo)man hours”.  Looking back now, I am filled with a sense of achievement for having successfully scaled through this important part of my degree.  For those on the 3 year Bachelors programme, the third year individual project constitutes 22% of the degree and must be passed before you can be awarded your degree.  This applies to those on four year programmes as well.  It is arguably one of the most important pieces of work one would have to complete during a degree here.  It is an individual task and is a year long as well.

Every student gets to work with a supervisor who overseas his/her work for the entire project duration and provides support and guidance to help the student achieve the project goals.  However, the student remains the main driving force of the project and is responsible for the actual project delivery and success.  Supervisor allocation is handled centrally but students get to rank all available supervisors in order of preference.  All submissions are passed through the project management system which then allocates or pairs students to supervisors based on a number of factors including supervisors’ preferences and research area and student grades in the second year.

The supervisor allocation process is completed in the last term of the second year so that students are able to meet with supervisors before the summer holidays to agree on possible project topics.  Fortunately, I was allocated my first choice supervisor, a researcher in the Agents, Interaction and Complexity Research Group in ECS.  I arranged to meet him after my 2nd year Semester II exams to discuss my project topic.  I had interests in swarm robotics which was an area he had experience in.  After fruitful discussions, it was agreed that I needed to investigate the possibility of working on the communication scheme in swarm robotic societies.  I was to spend the summer investigating this so as to come up with a specific topic for the project.

By the start of the new academic year in October, we had agreed on a topic – “Proximity Communication for Swarms” and I had to submit a project brief within two weeks of resuming the new year.  Swarm robotics is an interesting area of research and simply refers to a large number of simple robots working together to achieve complex tasks.  Interestingly, they are modelled after living creatures like ant colonies, flocks of birds, and herds of animals.   A key factor of swarm robotic societies is that they have a decentralised command structure which eliminates the presence of a centralised point of failure thus making them robust.  However, there must be some sort of communication among swarm members and this formed the basis of my project.  I investigated the possibility of implementing a low cost communication scheme between swarm members using capacitive coupling.  This was a novel approach as most existing swarm robotic systems utilised existing schemes such as Radio Frequency and infrared communication.

The project required me working every week in the third year project labs in the Zepler building carrying out tests, designs and prototyping. I also had to meet my supervisor weekly to update him on my work and any difficulties encountered for guidance.  At the end of the autumn term in December, I had to submit a Progress Report which was worth 10 % of the marks for the third year project.

The spring term was my busiest for the project work as it saw me complete the main prototyping and then go into PCB (Printed Circuit Board) design and production.  I designed my PCB using Eagle software and sent if off to a company based abroad for production.  There was a time lag of about 2 weeks for production and delivery.  When the devices were delivered, further tests were conducted before the final devices were then fully assembled.

In the summer term, I had to submit the Final project report and then present my work at a viva to my supervisor and second examiner.  At the viva, I gave a basic demonstration of proximity detection between two of my devices (I called them Proxbots) and then answered questions relating to experimental results detailed in my report.  There were also questions bordering on the technical approach utilized in my project work.  Overall it was for me an interesting, educative and revealing experience into the world of engineering project and research work.  I was particularly pleased to have had a working prototype!

Indeed, it was tough but fun!

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