Robots swim, crawl, fight in quest for annual prize

Rachel Rosmarin

It’s 10 p.m. Friday and five students have holed themselves up in the Engineering Design Studio preparing their robot for battle the following morning.

Scattered around them are paper bags from Ace Hardware, Radio Shack and Burger King, which provided the last-minute necessities: wood, metal, batteries and the all-important Whopper.

The team “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” was one of 30 burning the midnight oil for more than a week to build and test their robots to win the $3,000 grand prize in the 11th annual Design Competition, which took place Saturday on the lawn south of the Technological Institute.

The competition is a two-quarter independent study class in which teams of students create a robot, tailoring it to the demands of a challenging competition course.

The goal: Get your robot to maneuver through the maze-like land and water course, racing another robot to pop as many balloons as possible. Popping a blue land balloon was worth 10 points and the harder-to-reach balloons on water were worth up to 25 points.

The robots could not be remote controlled; instead they followed pre-programmed paths. But the robots were allowed to break into up to three parts, which meant the land robot could let loose two water-friendly agents to pop the coveted water balloons.

The Ghost Riders’ robot did just that. The team, named for a Johnny Cash song, built a land component programmed with a small processor chip to navigate the turns in the course without a remote control. At the start of the course, the land agent would deposit two boats into the water, each outfitted with a different sensor to navigate itself around turns in the course.

But the Ghost Riders, like many other teams, had to get rid of one of their boats because it got stuck at the entrance to the water segment of the course.

“This was so simple on paper, in the beginning,” Ghost Riders member Owen Piette said. “But we can adapt.”

Despite their last-minute hustling, the Ghost Riders lost in the first round to the NUStyle team. Even though they lost out on the grand prize, team members said they were still proud of their accomplishment.

“I knew everyone was going to be a winner today, ” said Piette, a McCormick junior, as he walked off to prepare for the consolation round.

While Ghost Riders competed in the consolation round, the winning teams duked it out for the top prize in the afternoon. The crowd cheered during both rounds as their favorite robots managed to seek out and pop difficult balloons.

The robots were not supposed to hit each other, but sometimes their similar goals caused them to clash. When two robots collided, the crowd would shriek as the heavier robot managed to push the lighter one into a wall and continue its preprogrammed course.

Many of the robot designs operated on similar principles. Some, such as Ghost Riders, used water and land agents. Others, including the third-place 12-inch Poker, stuck only to land and popped about 60 percent of the blue balloons.

The second-place team, ironically named Hydrophobia, used only speedy styrofoam boats to maximize high scoring.

Piette said this design made sense for maximizing point opportunities.

“Anyone can build a decent land agent,” Piette said. “But this competition will be won in the water.”

Hydrophobia lost the championship match to Golden Hind, a pirate ship-themed design similar to Ghost Riders’ that was highly accurate on both land and water.

Hydrophobia burst many valuable water balloons but not enough to stop Golden Hind, whose skull-and-crossbones flag sailed to victory as it popped most of the land balloons and secured several water balloons.

The Golden Hind team members attributed their consistent victories to finishing their robot a week before the competition.

“Our adviser made us get it done really early,” said Sara Hohenshelt, a McCormick junior. “We had time to make sure the land part and the water part both worked, and we had time to factor in the competition and their strategies.”

While 26 of the 30 teams received $400 for their robots from the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, the Ghosts Riders paid for their creation out of their own pockets.

Piette said he didn’t think the team was at a disadvantage because of a lack of funds.

“We each spent about $60 on supplies, which is less than the cost of books for a normal class,” Piette said.

The Golden Hind team comprised two mechanical engineering majors, one civil engineering major and one chemical engineering major. Piette said the teams with mechanical engineers had a distinct advantage.

“They know how to use the shops and the labs,” he said. “They know how to build things. (Ghost Riders) is all electrical engineers. But we’ve learned a lot, and I’m ready for next year. Next year we will be champions.”

But not all of the Ghost Riders shared the same fervor for next year’s competition.

“I would only do this again if I had to choose between this and dental surgery without anesthesia,” said Nick Terrell, a McCormick junior. “It’s just a lot of work.”