It’s supposed to snow today. Anyone in the Midwest knows the drill; when the snow falls, it must be shoveled. This usually means rising earlier than one would like, up to an hour (or more) of laboring with a shovel, scooping and dumping until sidewalks and driveways are cleared.

But what if all that could be done by a robot? An autonomous snowplow, to be precise?

Andrew Narvesen, a grad student at North Dakota State University studying robotics, re-ignited the NDSU Robotics Team last fall. The Team, which consists of around 20-30 under and upperclassmen, designed an autonomous snowplow for the St. Paul Winter Carnival’s Autonomous Snowplow Competition held in January.

“Not everyone is able to plow snow themselves,” said Narvesen, who was President of the Club during the competition. “Some are physically incapable.”

THUNDAR the autonomous snowplow

THUNDAR the autonomous snowplow

THUNDAR: the autonomous snowplow

Introducing THUNDAR: Terrestrial High-Powered Ubiquitous Navigation Driven Autonomous Robot – the name of the NDSU Robotics’ Team autonomous snowplow. A fully functional THUNDAR is able to cheerfully plow snow while its owner stays warm. Maybe has some coffee.

“You would be able to map the coordinates of your driveway or sidewalk, put the robot in the starting location, press Go, and it’d clear the snow for you,” said Narvesen, who is studying the navigation aspect of the snow plow as part of his graduate thesis.

The team presented THUNDAR at the Competition, placing 5th out of 18 participants. Narvesen said what makes their robot different is the fact that it is designed by mechanical engineers, and is therefore a very powerful machine (albeit not as agile as some of the others, he said). They also gave special focus to using cost-efficient sensors on the robot for navigation, as well as using a low-cost micro-controller, he said.

“At the competition there wasn’t much snow, but we made a few piles,” he said. “We could do a triangle or a straight line. It [THUNDAR] clears snow really well.”

Since the competition, Narvesen said they are working to improve the sensors. The work on the robot has generated a lot of interest in the Robotics Team, from more fields than just Engineering – there’s a pharmacist, for instance, who attends because she likes robots. THUNDAR is hit among the grad students as well, Narvesen said.

“It’s a lot flashier than some of the other projects,” he said with a laugh. “There’s a lot of work to be done in grad school, not all of it is this exciting. And the end result is pretty cool.”

As for the commercialization of THUNDAR, Narvesen said that was never the intent.

“Our overall goal wasn’t to make it available to the public, mostly we’re concerned with learning about robotics,” he said. “It takes someone with the initiative to take what they’ve learned with our robot and make it commercial. And I’m not so much of a business person.”

autonomous snowplow

The Quadcopter team from NDSU Robotics Team


Narvesen is graduating this year, and a new Robotics Team president was recently elected to take his place. Having started the team up again from nothing, Narvesen said he hopes to see it continue to grow – both in members and in robotics projects.

“I’d like to see it continue to teach people more about robots,” he said. “Maybe the team could take on 3-4 projects…who knows in the future what kind of work we’d be taking on.”

Narvesen will be presenting on the autonomous snowplow tomorrow morning at 1 Million Cups Fargo, which is held every Wednesday at 9:15 am at the Stage at Island Park. Don’t miss it!

Photos courtesy of Andrew Narvesen and the Bison Robotics Team.

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Marisa Jackels