The first ice harvester was invented in 1949 by Frank Zamboni in Paramount, California. Since then, Zamboni has become the largest manufacturer and supplier of these machines in the world, while ice harvesters are often called "zamboni", regardless of who produced it. A team of researchers are trying to make these machines autonomous.
A group of Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) students, in collaboration with Zamboni, Duquesne Light Company, the Pittsburgh Penguins Club and developers of autonomous systems for Locomation trucks, have developed an autonomous ice harvester.
The collaboration began with the company Location, whose founders, CEO Cetin Merichli and Technical Director Tekin Merichli, visited the Pittsburgh Penguins game and saw an opportunity to use the technology they developed in a new way.
Locomation creates autonomous systems for trucks and uses a unique approach to autonomous driving. Their technology implies that one truck, with a resting driver in the cabin, autonomously follows another car, which is controlled by a person, but is also equipped with autonomous driving technology. These trucks are electronically connected to move together, and can swap places so that drivers can take turns to rest.
Although in the future the company plans to develop fully autonomous trucks that will not need to follow human-driven trucks, the priority for it is to introduce its technology to the world. This will allow the autonomous system to learn from real-world scenarios while driving on public roads.
Usually, two Zamboni cars clean the ice at the rink in between hockey periods. The company Locomation decided that it is possible to create a similar system for ice harvesters, which it uses in trucks. The company contacted John Dolan, director of the Master's program in Robotics systems development at CMU, to find out if a group of students would be interested in working together on the project. Location exited CMU in 2018, so it was a natural collaboration for both organizations.
The project lasted three semesters, starting with a brainstorming stage where students determined how they would develop the system and test it, starting with a small RC Car, which is a small platform with remote control, and ending with a real Zamboni.
After testing the concept on an RC Car, a team of students worked on a HE car equipped with all the sensors necessary for autonomous operation. This stage of the project allowed the team to work out all the latest nuances of automation technology before installing it on Zamboni.
Zamboni provided the team with an all-electric ice harvester for operation and modernization. The team successfully completed the first test on the ice: the autonomous Zamboni followed another, man-driven, but with an offset, so that the two cars did not clean the same areas of ice. The final demonstrations of the system will take place in about a week.
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