A Closer Look at Mudd’s Self-Propelled, Autonomous Couch

Wednesday, October 30, 2013 by Maury Quijada
Alistair Dobke, Zakkai Davidson, and Paige Robinson (left to right) stop for an impromptu photo-op demoing the couch.
Alistair Dobke, Zakkai Davidson, and Paige Robinson (left to right) stop for an impromptu photo-op demoing the couch.

If you’ve been tracking us with our Facebook page (which, by the way, you should like), then you might remember a picture that I posted of a self-propelled couch that I saw on a lazy Sunday afternoon in early September. I have to admit, I’m used to seeing impressive engineering projects at Mudd (like a pair of self-propelled freeline skates just days prior), but this couch struck my interest particularly because my friend, Zakkai, had worked on it as a summer 2013 research project. This past weekend, I finally got to investigate!

This past Saturday night, I had the chance to meet the five masterminds behind this engineering feat: Benjamin Chasnov (’16), Zakkai Davidson (’16), Alistair Dobke (’14), Jerry Hsiung (’16), and Cyrus Huang (’16).

Zakkai had conceived the idea of a drivable couch early on in high school, but his idea remained dormant. It wasn’t until he began to attend Harvey Mudd, motivated by other brilliant DIY engineers, that he decided to make this far-flung dream a reality. Zakkai intended on funding the project with the Shanahan Student-Directed Project Fund, a resource that Mudd students can use to obtain funding for essentially anything they’re interested in.

A frontal view of the self-propelled couch. Note the carpets on the side, which decorate the wooden framework as well as protect the walls of the hallways.
A frontal view of the couch. Note the carpet lining on the side, which conceals the wooden framework as well as protects the walls of the hallways.

However, due to limiting circumstances, Zakki instead sought to create this as a summer research project and found Professor Zachary Dodds from the Department of Computer Science as a possible sponsor. Talks with Dodds led to Zakkai, along with Benjamin, Alistair, Jerry, and Cyrus, being asked to implement Zakkai’s dream of a self-propelled, autonomous couch over the last half of the Summer 2013 research session. According to Zakkai, Prof. Dodds said that he felt like this idea would draw people to the realm of robotics who wouldn’t be interested in or pay attention to it otherwise.

An underside view of one of the two powered couch wheels.
An underside view of one of the two powered couch wheels.

The group began planning the autonomous couch late in the Spring 2013 semester and carried on into the first half of summer research. The couch was a diamond-in-the-rough, having been obtained at a local Goodwill store for only ten dollars. The group planned to implement the couch’s autonomy by installing a laser eye from a Neato robotic vacuum cleaner and adapting software to help the couch traverse the Libra Complex, the connected basement of Mudd’s many academic buildings. Furthermore, the group needed to actually lay the groundwork for the groundwork; the framework, motors, battery, wheels, sprockets, Arduino board, and LEDs lights combined cost over $500.00.

A more complete underside view of the self-propelled couch.
A more complete underside view of the couch.

It wasn’t until the first week of August that the group began assembling the couch. Through the construction of the couch as well as configuring the vehicle’s autonomy, the team members forged a strong bond with each other and learned  immense amounts of engineering and robotics knowledge. Over a span of three weeks, Zakkai’s initial dream became a reality.

The end result is a resilient self-propelled couch that can be controlled with a game console controller or (if you’re in the Libra Complex) autonomously. The couch, mounted with one person, can travel up to six miles per hour. Furthermore, the couch, with its powerful brushless motors that supply up to four horsepower combined, can carry a maximum of five people at about two to three miles per hour (check out a video here).

Though the group expressed desires to iterate on the design (such as improving the couch’s autonomous capability), I’d still call this summer project a ravishing success.

Here are some pictures of this beauty!

The group installed very slick LED lights that pimp out the ride at nighttime.
The group installed very slick LED lights that illuminate the surroundings at nighttime.
A portion of the brushless motor that the group uses to drive a couch wheel.
A portion of the brushless motor that the group uses to poqwe a couch wheel.
Bundles of USB cord that allow the laptop to interact with and control the Arduino board on the couch, which in turn controls the couch's motion.
Bundles of USB cord that allow a laptop to interact with and control the Arduino board on the couch, which in turn controls the couch’s motion.
The Neato's laser eye mounted on the underside of the couch.
The Neato’s laser eye mounted on the underside of the couch.
The Arduino board with USB connection as well as connections to both of the brushless motors and the power supply.
The Arduino board with USB connection as well as connections to both of the brushless motors and the power supply.
The emergency shut-off switch embedded into the couch's right arm-rest.
The emergency shut-off switch embedded into the couch’s right arm-rest.
One of two of the couch's power trains.
One of two of the couch’s power trains.
Cyrus, Jerry, Alistair, Benjamin, and Zakkai all mount the couch in a Beckman hallway. And yes, the couch actually can drive five people.
Cyrus, Jerry (top row), Alistair, Zakkai, and Benjamin (bottom row) all pile onto the couch in a Beckman hallway. And yes, the couch actually drove these people.