Freshman takes robotics to new heights

[slidepress gallery = ‘120419_chris_robots’]

Freshman Chris Nagel quickly found his niche at St. Thomas in the lower level of O’Shaughnessy Science Hall.

It’s not a typical hangout for students, but in the basement Nagel is able to do what he loves: build robots.

“When I was little my grandfather took me to the garage; I always worked with him on stuff,” Nagel said. “I found out very quickly I was a hands-on learner; I knew how to use a saw by the time I was 10.”

Nagel said he also learned early on that he was interested in engineering and more specifically robotics. During his senior year of high school, Nagel joined a robotics class that eventually turned into a team that traveled to Istanbul, Turkey, to compete in the summer 2011 RoboCup.

“We were in the senior search and rescue, and the goal was to design and build a robot to traverse a course that’s supposed to simulate disaster,” Nagel explained. “It has to be able to go over rubble fields, go off ramps, and you have to map the area and find victims.”

Although the team didn’t win, Nagel said he appreciated the experience because he was able to take away new concepts and apply them to his work at St. Thomas.

“In the competition, we were the only United States team in the search and rescue,” Nagel said. “There were teams from Iran, Thailand, Austria, Australia, China, and Japan. There was just such an abundance of different robots , so I saw new concepts and ways of thinking.”

During Nagel’s fall semester at St. Thomas, he was eager to learn more about the engineering department. When he registered for Engineering 150, assistant engineering professor Kundan Nepal introduced a project to build an animatronic Paul Bunyan. The rest is history.

“He came in and he talked about robotics, and I just instantaneously was like, ‘Yup, I’m going to go talk to him the first chance I get, and hopefully he will consider me for the project,’” Nagel said.

The robot is projected to be 5 feet tall and weigh less than 100 pounds. It will also be able to speak, and the team is currently in phase two of the prototype.

The student-led team includes six students, ranging from freshmen to seniors. Nepal is an adviser for the project and said what he enjoys most is the students’ fearlessness.

“They are not afraid of a lot of the problems that they may run into, mostly because they’ve never run into them before,” Nepal said. “They’ve been able to take risks, and it’s very refreshing to see the enthusiasm they bring every week.”

Nagel is excited to present the final prototype to St. Thomas when it is completed and hopes another opportunity comes his way soon.

“Anyone can build a birdhouse, it takes someone special to build something that can move forward and have the ability to pick up a 25-pound object,” Nagel said. “It keeps evolving, and that’s why I’m so drawn to it.”

Terese Quarberg can be reached at