Plowing forward: Intelligent Systems Club returns to St. Paul for yearly autonomous snowplow competition

February 13, 2017

Two Intelligent Systems Club teams put on a show at the annual autonomous snowplow competition.

UM-Dearborn Autonomous Snowplow

University of Michigan-Dearborn’s Intelligent Systems Club (ISC) competed in the ION (Institute of Navigation) Autonomous Snowplow Competition last month for the seventh consecutive year. The competition took place in St. Paul, Minn., and included 13 teams from universities across the Midwest.

Two teams represented UM-Dearborn—team Z-3PO (Zenith 3.0) and team Yeti 7.0. Eleven students and two advisers made the trip. With only one returning member from each team, the weekend of competition was a new experience for the others.

“We spend so much time improving the snowplows year to year,” said Michael Bowyer, club president of ISC. “Watching all of the first-year competitors from our school work together and enjoy not just the competition—but the atmosphere in general—was great.”

The two UM-Dearborn snowplows were in the competition last year, but each one consisted of new, more advanced elements for this year’s competition.

“Yeti used the same technology as previous years, but we improved it and added new functionality to it,” Bowyer said. “Z-3PO pretty much started from scratch. They scrapped their old robot and built a new one entirely, with only a few of the same parts.”

Both Yeti and Z-3PO used skid steering, which consists of four motors on the robot—two on each side. Skid steering allows for the movement of the robot; the wheels on each side provide forward and reverse mechanisms, making it easier to plow the snow.

The competition consisted of four components: a design review, two snowplow competitions and a final design review. Scores were decided by a panel of industry professionals.

Team Yeti earned second place overall with a $4,000 prize while Team Z-3PO earned seventh place overall. Z-3PO won the competition’s first cooperative challenge, where they earned $750. Yeti earned fourth place with a $150 prize. The prize money benefits ISC and future club functions.

Students traveled to St. Paul by van. The trip allowed for the students to put business aside and have a little fun, while still being serious about the competition.

“Getting to know the team was my favorite part,” said Bowyer. “We spent a lot of time together preparing for the competition, but it was all business. We got to know each other a lot more on the road, which was nice.”

While it was a competition, Bowyer said the attitude and scene told a different story.

“The environment at the competition was a lot of fun,” he said. “Everyone was very sportsmanlike—other teams were always willing to help if you ran into a problem. It didn’t even feel like a competition at some points.”

For more information on ISC, visit