Citadel students develop robot poop scoop

Citadel electrical engineering students demonstrate their dog waste collection vehicle, which they call AutoDOG, on Wednesday.

Cleaning up dog waste is a dirty job, so four Citadel engineering students are trying to make a robot do it.

As its senior project, a team of students designed and built a high-tech, robotic poop scoop that ultimately might be able to rove backyards picking up dog waste.

The device is in an early stage of development, said team members Jose Montes, 32; Geoff Stephens, 28; Stephen Black, 37; and Adam Frowein, 22.

The team members are undergraduates who took evening engineering classes through The Citadel Graduate College and expect to graduate in May. The team spent the entire school year making the robot, which they call the AutoDOG.

Engineering professor John Peeples, who teaches the senior capstone course, said each year "there's always one (project) that has the appeal, that's practical." This year, he said that project is the AutoDOG.

In a demonstration Wednesday, team members placed warm hot dog pieces on a grid taped to a classroom floor. Then, on a computer screen, they entered the section of the grid in which the hot dog pieces were placed. The robot drove to that section, zeroed in on the hot dogs, scooped them up and returned to its starting point. It was designed to sense heat, then move toward the warm object.

Montes said that if the device was further developed and sold commercially, a person could put his dog in the backyard, then indicate on a computer screen in which section of the yard the dog left waste. The robot could then head out to that section and scoop it up.

The robot also could be programmed to move like a robotic vacuum cleaner, automatically roving the yard and picking up waste of any temperature, he said.

The students said that so far they haven't taken the robot outside to pick up real pet waste. Maneuvering through grass would require a stronger motor, Black said.

All four team members said they'll begin either full-time jobs or military service after they graduate, so they don't have immediate plans to try to market the device. They hope that maybe a team of seniors next year will take their work and further develop it, they said.

Making a poop-scooping robot wasn't an easy task. They had little instruction on how to proceed and could spend only up to $600.

"One of the toughest parts was making the robot's two brains talk to each other," Frowein said.

Montes said the "main brain" controls the treads, scoop arm and light sensors. A second brain picks up information about heat sources and relays it to the main brain.

The students said they learned a lot, even though the experience was frustrating at times.

"This is the greatest course we've taken here, even though there's a lot of stress," Black said.

Reach Diane Knich at 937-5491 or dknich@postandcourier.com.