Autonomous Robots Battle it Out to Win MIT Contest

A revolution was taking place at MIT on Thursday evening. The battleground was set, the targets were marked, the munitions were stocked, but the soldiers here were none other than robots. For the event, hundreds of spectators packed into Johnson Athletic Center, where 32 robots built by students winnowed down from a field of 153 robots, selected from the yearly competition for Course 2.007 (Design and Manufacturing) - an undergraduate course in mechanical engineering offered by MIT.

Instructors modeled the competition’s obstacle course after major landmarks from the American Revolution, including replicas of Boston’s North Church, Concord’s Old North Bridge, and the “H.M.S. Beaver.” (Photo: Tony Pulsone)

This year, the competition’s obstacle course was modeled by instructors after significant landmarks from the American Revolution, such as replicas of Concord’s Old North Bridge, Boston’s North Church, and a Boston Tea Party ship called the H.M.S. Beaver.

During head-to-head battles, robots attempted to outdo their adversaries by finishing a set of tasks on the obstacle course. The tasks included pushing tea bags off the wooden ship, hanging tiny lanterns on the North Church steeple, hiding cannonballs under the Old North Bridge; and climbing a steep hill to reproduce Paul Revere’s ride.

In order to complete these tasks, the students programmed their robots in a way that they could deploy some complex and creative mechanisms. For instance, a robot that is remotely controlled was designed to jump a few feet up in the air to plant a flag on the church steeple.

Other students had an aggressive strategy, for instance, one robot was designed to autonomously cross over the bridge and deter its adversary’s access. This was a confrontational strategy, which worked really well at least during the semifinal stage, because the robot got both cheers and jeers from the spectators.

However it was a simple, unrelenting, and powerful design that won the competition. Sophomore Austin Brown received a laser-cut trophy of the MIT dome and bragging rights for his autonomous robot, which was programmed to launch from a customized platform onto a rail flanking the Paul Revere hill. The robot was powered by two tiny motors, and each time it climbed the hill, it collected up points. During the final round of the contest, the robot scaled the 60-degree slope every 1.5 seconds — an intense speed that finally won the competition.

“My motors are smoky,” Brown proudly reported to the crowd. “I smell like a campfire.”

A design revolution

The contest was started with a playful battle. Amos Winter, course instructor and assistant professor of mechanical engineering, dressed up as a British redcoat and ringing a bell, addressed the MIT crowd:

I’ve come to collect innovations, and I want no fabrication! Fabrication is a waste of time and a waste of money.

Amos Winter, Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, MIT

In response, Sangbae Kim, co-instructor and the Edgerton Career Development Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering, was dressed as a Revolutionary soldier and wielding a wrench, called out for a design revolution.

“There’s no way we can have innovation without fabrication,” Kim announced, as he pursued and eventually enlisted Winter to his side.

2.007 students spent the entire semester learning and applying fabrication methods to design their robots. At the start of the course, all students received a kit that included materials like pieces of wood, metal, and plastic, as well as a small Arduino circuit board, wheels, and many kinds of motors with different levels of torque.

The really cool thing about this class is, they’re all starting from raw materials, from scratch, and they always come up with something we never expected.

Sangbae Kim, Professor of Mechanical Engineering, MIT

Most of the students programmed their robots to repeatedly climb the Paul Revere hill. Rather than directly dealing with the steep slope, the students deployed their own ramps having relatively lower slopes. Sophomore Emily Young navigated her robot up its own ramp, a unique design that would ultimately win her third place. To this, Winter, giving a play-by-play, remarked, “She who makes her own road, makes her own success.”

A different strategy was used by sophomore Andrea Gonzalez which involved leaning the robot against the Paul Revere hill and then launching it up with a scissor mechanism that resembled an Inspector gadget.

“I love 2.007 so much,” Gonzales said in a video played to the crowd. “I spend all my free time in the lab … trying new concepts, seeing them fail, seeing them succeed, and trying again.”

The freedom trail

While a large number of robots were dedicated to the tasks at hand, others were programmed with a more confrontational strategy. A robot designed by sophomore Will Harvey muscled its way to the quarterfinals. This robot used a forklift mechanism that was fabricated with multiple degrees of freedom to throw a cannonball under the Old North Bridge or to turn an opponent’s robot onto its back.

There’s a lot of guidance available to you, and it’s up to you to use it. That freedom is really cool.

Will Harvey, Sophomore, MIT

Sophomore Ty Ingram designed a two-robot team and ultimately reached the semifinals. He fittingly named it as “Wrathful Roombas.” As one robot remotely drove up and down a customized ramp, a second robot with a pirate flag autonomously drove across the Old North Bridge and deterred its opponent from accessing a pile of cannonballs. However, in spite of a clever and unique design, this pirate robot wasn't a match for Brown’s powerful and unrelenting climber, in a competition that drew applause from the MIT crowd.

In the last round of the contest, Brown’s robot was challenged by sophomore Jasmine Lennert with a design that autonomously launched her robot up a custom-built ramp and then the robot was carefully navigated to pick up cannonballs and drop them inside tiny holes in the Old North Bridge.

“Something we stress is, ‘Practice, practice, practice your driving,’” Kim told the crowd.

Lennert’s driving skill helped her drop all the cannonballs in the small holes and this earned her 357 points. However, it was not adequate to outscore Brown, whose fast hill-climbing robot earned him 1,178 points along with a victory march on the shoulders of Kim and Winter.

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