Robots take the plunge

Combine a land shark with a paddle-wheel boat, spice it with servo motors and radio transceivers, mix with water and what have you got? At Caltech, you have the year’s biggest sporting event.

At Tuesday’s competition, engineering students at the Pasadena campus operated hand-built robots and maneuvered them through an obstacle course that included concrete walkways, a shallow pond and a finish line atop an arching bridge.

A crowd of about 300 encircled Millikan Pond and cheered as the competing students hovered over remote controls and commanded their amphibious vehicles to toss competitors into the water, scoop up colored ping-pong balls, crawl up a ramp and deposit the balls into “scoring receptacles.”

In the water, faster attack boats could harass and block slower collector boats -- some of which were equipped with jaws that descended into the water, grabbed the floating balls, elevated them into the air and disgorged them into the onshore receptacles. Larger collector craft with simpler scoops were able to snag more balls, but lost precious time as they lumbered up the ramp in order to score.


Throughout the competition, students used their robots to block the exit ramp or push competitors away from scoring zones.

Tuesday marked the first time in the 25-year history of the ME 72 Engineering Design Contest that amphibious robots and a watery race course were used.

“There’s a lot of strategy involved,” said onlooker Nate Morrison, a 19-year-old freshman who was yelling encouragement to friends on the eight teams.

Graduate student Johannes Pulst-Korenberg, 24, explained the finer points of the competition.


“It’s a ‘rock, paper, scissors’ strategy,” he said. Craft with elevator jaws could bypass ramps blocked by attack craft, but larger collector boats could snag more balls and score more points once on shore. And the faster attack boats could trump lumbering collector craft by knocking them off course and away from the exit ramp.

Several teams were eliminated early on in the two-hour competition. Sarah Li and Mike Gherini, 20-year-old juniors who called themselves “Team Exploding Whale,” had redesigned their robot craft midway through construction. “We think that may have been a mistake,” Gherini said.

Will Tsay and Julianne Gould, also 20-year-old juniors, watched as their “Robotic Hamster” became an early casualty. “You don’t fail the class if you don’t win,” Gould said.

“We learned a lot from this. We’re coming out ahead,” Tsay said.

In the finals, competitors used electric hair dryers to revive waterlogged batteries and to repair short circuits. Robot builder John Hasier, a 21-year-old senior, pulled the radio controller’s transceiver out of his eliminated “Team Venture” amphibian and lent it to the “Ramen and Cheese Steaks” team.

The latter was beaten in the last race by “Newt N’ Salamander,” built and operated by Kevin Noertker and Marc Sells.

“This was 20 weeks worth of work, although it may not look it,” Noertker said. As he spoke, the 21-year-old senior pointed to a dripping “Newt,” the team’s tough attack boat.

“For mechanical engineering students, this is the big one,” said Sells, a 22-year-old senior. The winners received a 25-pound gear-shaped trophy from mechanical engineering professor Joel Burdick. “For the gear-heads,” he explained.