ASEE Prism Magazine - September 2003
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TV's NEWST HIT

ROBOTIC COMPETITIONS ARE FAST BECOMING STANDARD TELEVISION FARE AND THE NEWEST TOOL FOR ENGINEERING EDUCATORS

- By Anna Mulrine

WHEN THE TEAMS unveil their respective robot rivals in the Knoxville, Tenn., production studio, the consensus is that they look less than high-tech, glamorous, and sci-fi sleek. They are actually a bit clunky, with various kitchen utensils—old-fashioned egg-beaters, filed forks, and bits of disassembled blenders—jutting out in every direction. And little wonder. Engineering students accustomed to having six months to a year to build a robot have a bit less time today: precisely eight hours.

These automated creations are the product of a new cable television show from the DIY (Do-It-Yourself) network called “Robot Rivals”. The program's premise is simple: Teams of college engineering students compete against each other to build a robot that must complete a task. When Southern Illinois University took on the University of Massachusetts in episode five, their challenge was to create a dorm room waiter that could retrieve a pizza box and some soda from the fridge. Thirteen episodes of the show, involving 14 schools, have been taped and will air in the fall. The use of robotic competitions as a teaching tool is becoming increasingly common, and for a number of reasons. Martin Hebel, assistant professor of electronics systems technology at Southern Illinois University, says they help his students learn how to think on their feet. “The show was a good chance to apply their skills in the real world,” he says. “They had to be ready to adapt to changes that come up during the competition.”

The students agree that today's assignment might be the toughest yet. The teams' mission is to build a robot that will break through a wall, pick up an egg placed on the other side—inches away from the demolition—and place it in a basket without breaking it. “So your bot has to shift gears from being violent, to being delicate with an egg, and that's not easy,” says Will McMahan, an alternate on the Clemson University team. He is watching his fellow classmates on a closed-circuit television in the “Robot Rivals” green room.

“Robot Rivals” is a bit different from shows like Battle Bots, “Warehouse Warriors,” and “Junkyard Wars.” “It's not a knock-down, tear‘em-up kind of show,” says executive producer Dee Haslam. The point of the program, she explains, is above all to “show how this stuff actually works.” To that end, each episode includes an “expert corner” segment, in which Brett “Buzz” Dawson, a Battle Bots alum, or Brian Nave might take a moment to teach viewers how to, say, wire a battery.

The teams get extra points for incorporating “surprise items” that producers present to the students at the last minute into the design. And integrating these items also gives the show's hosts an opportunity to explain how they work as well. On today's show, teams are awarded extra points for incorporating any kitchen utensils and appliances on hand, hence the familiar-looking parts from toasters and blenders, as well as pieces of silverware, strewn everywhere.

TICK, TICK, TICK, TICK

At the heart of the program's challenge is the time element: Teams of three students each have only eight hours to build their robots, though they do receive the assignments up to two weeks in advance. It is the time restriction, however, that truly inspires creativity, notes Virginia Tech team member Graham Henshaw “Those types of situations are what really breed the ideas—and how you really learn.” In Virginia Tech's case, the assignment was sent out a week and a half in advance, but the team captain “didn't bother to pick it up from his mailbox.” As a result, the team “did most of our brainstorming in the car—which is how we like it,” says Henshaw. Most of the teams, including Virginia Tech, split up tasks according to specialties among the students with mechanical and computer engineering concentrations.

University of Utah student Dan Flickinger, a mechanical engineering major, explains that building a robot is the sort of project he's accustomed to tackling in one semester, or even one year, not one day. Now he stands in front of his team's partially built robot, eyeing it critically. He explains that they have built “a cannibalized drill” out of screws sharpened to fine points. “This will be very good at cutting through the sheetrock,” he notes, taking a rare break to quickly admire his team's work. His fellow classmate Amjidanutpan Ramanujam, 21, explains that the egg will be placed 8 inches behind the sheetrock and the trick will be breaking through the wall without breaking the egg. And at the moment, they are having trouble figuring out how they will gently grab the egg once they break through the wall. They experiment with a pile of ladles, colanders, and measuring spoons. “If we miscalculate,” worries Ramanujam, “we're going to trip the egg.” They finally settle on a hybrid creation. They grab a rubber dishwashing glove, cut it up, and use it to cover a pair of spoons—they hope this will prove an effective egg gripper.

Over on the Clemson side, program host Chris Chianelli prepares his color commentary. “What I haven't seen yet from this team is the grasping mechanism,” he notes. “That's going be a tough one to build—it needs to be a very delicate device.” Two kitchen barstools sit vacant as the Clemson students putter around a caddie filled with kitchen implements and consult with Nave. In addition to explaining to the television audience how things work, resident experts Dawson and Nave are matched up, one with each of the teams, to dispense advice and answer their questions. “That's not going to work either,” says Nave to his Clemson team. “Use some of that square steel tubing and do something else,” he advises. Clemson student Charlie Johnson mounts an old-fashioned egg beater on the machine. “At least that should give us some points,” he says.

At this moment, it seems like the University of Utah team is a bit further along in their robot design, and if Las Vegas was making odds, Clemson would probably be the long shot. But, says Dawson, the tide of competition can turn. “The other day, we were convinced Purdue would win,” says Dawson. “But we've found that some of the stronger teams crumble under the timeline,” he adds. “And other teams that we thought were lame ducks end up pulling it off at the end.”

The Utah team does a final assessment. They have made an eleventh-hour addition to the robot: some fork tines to the outer arm to scoop out dry wall bits and get to the egg. Amji, though, has some last-minute concerns. “Will it accidentally crush the egg? It definitely won't,” he answers himself. “At least on purpose.” Dawson offers some last-minute encouragement. “This is awesome, dude. You all have done a great job.”

The time is up, and it's time to start judging the results. Clemson takes home the most points for the incorporation of household items—13 to University of Utah's 9. “It looks like the chef of the future,” jokes one of the stagehands. Indeed, the Clemson team has attached its set of yellow rubber gloves to the back of the robot as a decoration.

As the challenge begins, however, the Clemson robot proves to be a powerhouse, punching holes in the drywall with ease. The fork tines on the Utah robot are falling off. “We'd have done better without all the stupid forks on the front,” says Utah team member Ben Newton. “This is now a brute force bash-off.” As much bashing as the Clemson bot accomplishes, however, it has yet to grasp the egg. Utah's robot punches through the wall far more methodically—not to mention slowly—but manages to grasp the egg, a feat which eludes the Clemson robot. The Utah robot cradles the egg in its yellow rubber graspers as the students hold their breath. Then it gently drops the egg into a cloth-lined basket. Utah has completed the challenge—and won the game.

As they celebrate, the teams make one more discovery—and it's not related to engineering. They learn that it doesn't hurt to cultivate some rudimentary acting skills. Henshaw recalls how happy he and his Virginia Tech teammates were after they won their challenge. “We were so excited—jumping up and down,” he says. “Then they said, ‘Hey you all, could you play it up a little bit? We need to see some more high five's'.” And that, Henshaw adds, is when it hit him: “As soon as you feel ridiculous, like you've gone over the top, that's when it's just about right for TV.”

 

Anna Mulrine is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.
She can be reached at amulrine@asee.org.


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