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Battle of ‘sumo bots’ preps class for helping schools

In McMichael Science Center on Oct. 26, it was good to be ‘Iron Giant.’ ‘Brave Sir Robin’ and ‘Jesse’? Not really.

Twelve students in adjunct assistant professor Jochen Fischer's robotics class competed in teams of three on Oct. 26 in a 'sumo bot' tournament in McMichael Science Center.


Turns out that when robots try to overturn each other, the best designs - those that survive, that is - are sometimes the most simplistic. Or maybe they’re just the heaviest.

Four teams in a fall semester robotics course led by Jochen Fischer spent the first part of class Wednesday afternoon going head-to-head in a battle of plastic vehicles that fought each other on a platform atop a lab table in McMichael Science Center. The computer-programmed devices featured ultrasonic sensors to seek, track and push their opposition out of the ring in a round robin “Sumo Bot” tournament that would eventually crown a contraption dubbed Iron Giant the winner.

What did Iron Giant look like? Imagine a gray cube. Spinning in circles. Swatting away sleeker machines named “Brave Sir Robin,” “Jesse,” “Best Sumo Bot Ever” and “Da Master,” the last of which Fischer put together himself. Inspired by the physiques of real sumo wrestler, no wonder it finished with a perfect record of 4-0 in its matches.

Elon senior Ron Chang was part of the team behind the bot "Jesse."

“There’s definitely a competitive sense for some of us, but at the same time, it’s still in good fun,” said Elon junior Melissa Provost, a computing sciences major who worked with senior Matt Love and sophomore Colin Pritchard on the Iron Giant. “It’s definitely been a fun and educational class.”

The matches allowed students from a variety of disciplines - physics, engineering, computer science - to hone their programming and design skills in the lead up to a bigger task. Later this year and into early 2012, teenagers from Western Alamance, Cummings and Eastern Guilford high schools, as well as a student team comprised of children home schooled in the area, will visit campus to scrimmage their own robots against those created by Elon students.

The high school teams have signed up for February’s FIRST Tech Challenge at N.C. A&T University in Greensboro, N.C. Given the school systems’ limited resources - and at Western Alamance alone, the competition and supplies will run the team $3,200 - Elon faculty thought it appropriate to build replica arenas in McMichael and have the high school scholars get lessons from the Elon students based on their semester class experiences.

Elon junior Robert Charles Kantlehner is one of 12 students in the robotics class this fall.

Fischer coaches the Western Alamance team; his enthusiasm for robotics is part of what motivated the Department of Physics to hire him in early 2011, and his suggestion to university colleagues sparked enthusiasm for the community partnerships. It helped that current Elon sophomore Ethan Glassman had also approached the department with his own ideas for a robotics team.

“We wanted to have a fertile place where (the high school teams) can come and try things out,” said Associate Professor Tony Crider, chair of the Department of Physics. “And we realized we’d probably do a much better job if we focused on helping high schools in the area get a head start.”

The entrepreneurial and creative attitudes of the dozen students in the class were on display for the mid semester class contest. That didn’t mean there weren’t hiccups. If nothing else, the mistakes witnessed in the heat of battle is what the class professor wanted students to take away from the experience.

Iron Giant, the victor.

“No matter how much you plan and think you can outsmart the competition, there are always unknown elements that are notoriously hard to predict, and they’ll get you,” said Fischer, an adjunct assistant professor of physics. “I had restricted the number of light sensors to be used, but I did not restrict weight or the height. Some other teams said it was unfair because (Iron Giant) used extra motors just to put weight on the machine. But you know, in real life, there’s no fair or unfair when it comes to developing a product. … If the competition pulls off something that’s better, they’ll succeed and you won’t. That’s life.”

Such lessons weren’t lost on students. Ron Chang, a senior business administration major from Fremont, Calif., said his goal is to work for an aerospace firm such as Boeing or Lockheed Martin, and the course offered an opportunity to learn about the programming that may go into the next generation of flight vehicles.

Chang and his two classmates discovered how their robot, “Jesse,” contained a design flaw that made it difficult for the device to effectively use a ramp for overturning opponents.

“We definitely did less well than we intended,” he said. “We’d actually taken the biggest robot and used it as a dummy target during our testing. We got the robot on our ramp and was able to move it off the playing field pretty effortlessly. What had happened in the interim, was they added about three more motors and a considerable number of wheels. That was one of our stumbling blocks.”

Chang added that he looks forward to working with high school students when the teams visit Elon in preparation for the FIRST Tech Competition. “I wouldn’t imagine that high school students would be too far behind us on knowledge of physics, but you never know,” Chang said. “If any of them make engineering mistakes like we made today, it would be easy to help them see where the flaws are in their robots.”

Eric Townsend,
10/31/2011 10:45 AM