Apollo 11 astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin undertook a historic lunar mission five decades ago and returned to Earth with over 8 pounds of lunar material, including a total of 50 moon rocks that are being intensely analyzed by researchers ever since.
At that time, if the astronauts had help from certain MIT robots, then they could have possibly brought back even more lunar material.
Now, students of MIT’s popular class 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing I) have demonstrated on Thursday evening that robots can indeed be clever, efficient, and even extremely entertaining moon-rock scavengers.
More than four usual nail-biting hours, a total of 32 student finalists, inspected from a roster of 165, contended head to machined head, in the course’s yearly robot competition, conducted in the ice rink at Johnson Athletic Center of MIT. Moonshot—this year’s theme—was a tribute to the Apollo 11 moon landing, commemorating its 50th anniversary this year.
The machinists and designers of the course took the theme to heart and built two large, similar game boards on which pairs of robots designed by students faced off. A model of the Apollo 11 lunar module, or LEM, stood at the middle of each board. It served as the starting point of the competition. Ramps on both sides of the LEM inclined down to a surface mimicking the lunar, scattered with “moon rocks”—stones of varied shapes and sizes, which were of Earthly origin for practical means.
The challenge required students to guide and control their robots, which were either controlled remotely or moved independently, from the starting point of the LEM down to the surface of the “lunar” to gather as many moon rocks as possible, and then eventually return them up to the LEM, within a couple of minutes. More points are awarded to robots when they plant a tiny flag on a hillside, rotate a wheel to “charge” the battery of the LEM, and pull a cord to jettison two weights—a specifically complicated task that, if achieved, would activate the LEM to “lift off,” to intense sound and smoke effects.
The competition name is very apropos of the challenge that the students face, because for many of them, making a robot by themselves for the first time is a moonshot.
Amos Winter, Course Co-Instructor and Associate Professor, Department of Mechanical Engineering, MIT
Winter and Sangbae Kim, an Associate Professor, served as the emcees of the competition and both were suited up in astronaut gear for the occasion.
Dating back to the 1970s, the 2.007 competition is an annual tradition, with Woodie Flowers—the course’s initial instructor and the Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering—who created 2.007 as one among the first hands-on, project-based undergraduate courses.
Every year, at the beginning of the semester, the same toolbox of components, including wheels, gears, microcontrollers, and circuit boards are provided to students. Via lectures and time—plenty of time—in the laboratory, students get the opportunity to design and machine their very own robots, to perform the competition challenges of that year.
The challenge of this year motivated a range of robotic designs and strategies, that included a bot, appropriately called Scissorlift, that expanded itself up through a scissoring mechanism to plant a small flag, and also a two-bot system called Lifties, containing a single robot that is capable of hoisting rocks up to a second robot through a telescoping arm.
Although a majority of the students were looking forward to win the prize, sophomore Jaeyoung Jung merely wanted to entertain. After making a request for the event’s overhead music to turn down, Jung wearing a tuxedo, created some music of his own, and played a recorder that he had rigged to control his robot. Every note played by him was changed to electrical signals that were seamlessly picked up by a computer, which consecutively transmitted a corresponding command to the controller of the robot to rotate a wheel and ultimately charge up the LEM.
Although the first music-controlled robot of the competition failed to make it through the first round, it was nevertheless met with plenty of cheers from a usually boisterous crowd of friends and family, who were intermittently treated with confetti of custom-made foam that was fired by astronauts from an air cannon.
Evelyn Wang, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, along with her two young children, was part of the excited crowd; the children were visualizing the engineering spectacle for the very first time. The competition triggered memories for Wang, who took part in 2.007 when she herself was an undergraduate at MIT. That year, Wang remembered how she contested on a game board called “Ballcano,” for a volcano-mimicking structure that fires balls, which needed to be caught and distributed by robots at different places across the game board.
It was the first time I learned how to design, build, machine, and work with different actuation mechanisms and motors and pneumatics.
Evelyn Wang, Head, Department of Mechanical Engineering, MIT
Wang proudly remembered taking home fourth place.
As the night approached, the robots fought over who could pick up the most number of moon rocks, utilizing a range of designs, from grabbers and grippers to comb-like and snowplow-sweepers, and rotating flaps and flippers. Between each session, the moon rocks were rapidly repositioned and the game board was swept of any remaining moon rock dust that can possibly make a robot slip. These tasks were handled by the course assistants.
To cope with this possible danger, a few students developed their bots with additional traction, lining their wheels with either Velcro, or with rubber bands, especially in the case of one bot called Sloth.
According to sophomore Jessica Xu, whose rock-snatching, spiky “Cactus-bot” made it all the way to the semifinals, the hands-on experience of 2.007 has aided her in steering toward a mechanically-oriented career.
This is my first experience ever even thinking of building a robot. I started the class googling, ‘What are mechanisms that robots even do?’ Because I wasn’t even sure what the possibilities were. I came into college wanting to do something that applies to health care. Now I’m hoping to concentrate in medical devices, applying the mechanical side. I’m excited to see what it could be.
Jessica Xu, Sophomore, MIT
Finally, it was a robust, motor-heavy bot called Rocky that ate up the rocks “like Cookie Monster,” as Winter stated to the raucous crowd, that won the prize. According to sophomore Sam Ubellacker who designed Rocky, it could have been the drive train of the bot that made the real difference. Although a majority of the students included a pair of motors in their drive trains, Ubellacker selected four, so as to traverse twice as fast as his competitors—an 11th-hour decision that eventually paid off.
“I pretty much redesigned my entire robot the week before this competition, because I realized my other one wasn’t going to score any points,” stated Ubellacker, who incidentally has kept up the family tradition—in 2011, his brother Wyatt won the first prize. “I’ve probably worked about 100 hours this week on this robot. I’m just glad that it worked out.”
Ubellacker credits his success, and all the knowledge he has gained across the semester, to each expert behind 2.007.
“I didn’t know much about machining going in,” stated Ubellacker. “Interacting with the machinists and the staff will be my most memorable experiences. They’re all really cool people, and they shared all this knowledge with me. This was all really great.”