Simplicity was a winning strategy for three engineering students at the annual Cornell Robotics Competition, which took place December 1 in the atrium of Duffield Hall.
The group of hero students, Team 36, included Young Joon Park, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering. Will Campisi 24; and Christina Wang 24. Entering the Round of 16 as the second seed, Team 36 won twice to advance to the final, where they defeated top seed, Hasbulla (Team 11).
After capturing the Student Final, Team 36 fell in a best-of-3 series to a bot from sponsor ASML. Team 36 won the first game, before ASML won the next. It was a sign of a little redemption; Last year, ASML lost to the student champions for only the second time since the Dutch chip manufacturer began sponsoring the event in 2013.
Park said his team stuck to the basics in building the winning robot.
“We focused mainly on the simplicity and robustness of the robot,” he said. “Our primary goal was to make the robot accomplish its task without any malfunctions, either in hardware or software. Our original design had a strategy and more complex functions – such as more sensors and foldable arms – but we decided to simplify the design as much as possible to secure performance and avoid unexpected errors.”
After weeks of programming, designing, testing and tweaking their machines, 53 teams of students competed in six preliminary rounds to narrow the group down to a single elimination class.
Each round of the competition started with two robots on a 4-foot square yellow and blue board, with 10 small blocks on each side. Challenge: Finish the one-minute round with more blocks on your side than your opponent. The hall was filled with excitement from the cheering crowd and the sound of a gong signaling the start of each round.
The robotics were final projects for mechanical engineering students in the mechatronics class taught before Hadass Chris GazetteGeoffrey SM Hedrick Sr. Professor at the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering.
Chris Gazette said students in her class learn how to build circuits and program Arduino boards — a circuit board with a microcontroller in it — that are used as the brains of robots. Each year, she said, she is surprised by the range of designs and strategies students come up with after working for about three weeks on the robots.
“I think the most successful people are the ones who try not to overcomplicate it, and that tests a lot,” said Chris Gazette. “Because a lot of times people have really huge plans, they don’t have enough time to finish them, they haven’t tested them, and then it just doesn’t work out.”
While many teams programmed their bots to collect blocks and return to their side using technology that differentiated between the colors of the board, the Chaisher Boys had a different strategy. Their robot used a rotating arm—called a “shot”—that brought the blocks back onto their side of the board.
“We didn’t want to deal with color sensing or anything like that,” said Zach Patrick 24, a mechanical engineering student. “We don’t care where the robot ends up…it just has to hit as many cubes as possible.”
Each match, Buttrick’s robot would drive to the other side of the board, rotate 90 degrees, and move along the board as the arm sent the blocks swinging to its side—all without a remote control.
“It has a programmed trajectory that only hopes it stays on,” said Buttrick, whose robot dominated the early rounds but was eliminated in the round of 16 by the eventual champion. “If it infects another bot, there really isn’t anything we can do about it.”
Sophia Alonso ’24 and her colleagues built a cat-inspired robot and tackled a lot of challenges. As the deadline for submitting a draft of their design approached, they discovered that the Arduino board was faulty.
“Obviously it wasn’t our code, but the hardware wasn’t working,” Alonso said. “So we had to rewire everything into a new Arduino board. So that was really stressful.”
The day before the competition, Alonso’s team also realized that their robot did not comply with some rules. The robots had to fit into an 8″ x 8″ box (with no height restrictions) at the start of the competition. Once the round begins, the robots can deploy arms that extend farther—as long as they still fit within a 12-inch circle. This is a slight change from last year, when the circle was 18 inches in diameter.
“We had to make some last-minute changes because our arm was too big,” said Alonso. “We had to completely change the arm to be able to compete.”
Kress-Gazit said a team project teaches students how to work together and allows them to see a product complete a circle through the design, build, and test processes.
“They are basically building a system from scratch,” said Chris Gazette. “You have constraints, you have constraints on the design, we have a limited budget that we give them. I think the teamwork, the creativity, the kind of open-endedness of this is very good for them to try. This is an engineering feat of the future.”
Ken Bogursky ’96, ASML’s director of mechanical development, began the competition between Cornell and ASML to handle a new generation of engineers. It has been such a success that ASML is now hosting an internal competition to decide which bot will travel to Ithaca and battle the winning student.
ASML had a table set up during the competition where staff and students could chat and network. It’s a great way to recruit, Bugorski said; His company hires about 10 Cornell graduates each year.
“We love nurturing young talent,” said Bugorski. “Cornell is one of the best engineering schools in the world. They have a strong focus on mechatronics and ASML is a mechatronics company, so it’s a great way to help foster the development of future engineers. And if some of them happen to come our way, even better.”
Bugorski thought fondly of his time at Cornell University, particularly his involvement in hands-on projects like this robotics challenge.
“The thing I see about Cornelians is that they’re not afraid to learn and they’re not afraid to try new things,” Bugorski said. “I think Cornell prepares students to learn, fundamentally, not just knowing the textbooks, but learning how to learn. Learning to solve problems on their own and to take advantage of other people and other resources and continue to build on that. I think that’s unique to the Cornell experience.”
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