Penn College student ‘plays’ chess for senior project
WILLIAMSPORT — A Pennsylvania College of Technology electronics student used a game synonymous with skill to showcase his automation and robotics acumen.
For his senior project, Aaron T. McGinley, of Williamsport, created a virtual version of chess that allows a robot to mimic the game. Users play via a computer screen and a Kuka industrial robot picks up and arranges 3D pieces on wooden chessboards to reflect the on-screen action.
“I wanted to incorporate something that kind of had an entertainment aspect for my senior project, which is why I made it about chess,” McGinley said. “I wanted people to interact with it and play with it. The robot functionality added some pizazz.”
McGinley is scheduled to graduate May 16 with a bachelor’s degree in automation engineering technology: robotics and automation. He previously earned two associate degrees focusing on robotics and automation, and electronics and computer engineering, respectively.
“Aaron’s project is unique because he integrated two competitors’ (Siemens and Allen-Bradley) programmable logic control units to have the Kuka robot mimic the moves that an operator makes via a human-machine interface. This was done by programming three different controls as well as interfacing them,” said Ken J. Kinley, assistant professor of electronics and computer engineering technology.
The endeavor represents more than 80 hours of work throughout the spring semester and encapsulates key components of the automation engineering technology degree: PLC programming, HMI development, robotics and networking.
McGinley began by writing the code for the game before using Ignition — a software program donated to the college by Inductive Automation – to design the human-machine interface that allows users to play chess on a computer screen. He then worked with the programming languages of the two PLCs to link the computer to the Kuka robot.
“The most challenging aspect was programming the entire thing,” McGinley said. “Once I got the data, it was essentially putting images to the data. With the robot, once I had the data sent over, it was pretty simple to make it do things. But getting to that point where the robot knew how to move the pieces and where to place them was difficult at times.”
The robot component led McGinley to the Dr. Welch Workshop: A Makerspace at Penn College. There he used a computer-numerical-control router to cut two chessboards — each measuring 8.5 inches by 17 inches by 1 inch — out of basswood. McGinley designed the plastic chess pieces – all about 4 inches tall — and produced them on a 3D printer. He also 3D-printed pieces of dark tile for use as black squares on the chessboards.
The game is meant to be played by competitors on two different computers. When the robot mode is activated, the Kuka robot will maneuver the appropriate 3D piece mere seconds after the virtual move. After a piece is “killed,” the robot deposits it into a cardboard box.
“At some points, I wasn’t sure this was all going to be possible,” McGinley said. “I just made it work step by step. Overall, it turned out better than I could have imagined.”
“Aaron’s use of the diverse skills we develop in the major for his project was impressive,” Kinley said. “It prepares him well for industry because automation is taking over industrial applications.”
Following graduation, McGinley will begin a full-time position as a controls technician at The Boston Beer Co. near Allentown.
“I’m absolutely grateful for my education at Penn College,” he said. “I didn’t think about coming here at first because I lived in Williamsport my whole life and was ready to get out. But after visiting the college and seeing all the technology, I knew I couldn’t go wrong coming here, especially because I prefer hands-on learning.”
For information on electronics degrees and other majors offered by the School of Engineering Technologies, visit www.pct.edu/et or call 570-327-4520.