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Every robot for itself

“You got time, you got time,” a student nervously repeated as he watched his teammate work a joystick that maneuvered a small robot around a course set up in the McConnell lobby. The robot, built by a group of mechanical engineering students from Professor Peter Radziszewski’s Conceptual Design Class, had drawn a crowd. About 30 students, two of them filming the event with digital video cameras, packed three deep around the course, jostling to catch a glimpse of the action.

In the department of Mechanical Engineering, Radziszewski’s robot design competition, held on a recent Friday afternoon, is a serious affair, and not just because his students are being graded. The rules of the contest are taken from a similar event run each year by the American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME). And the McGill team that finishes at the top of Radziszewski’s class has a chance to compete at the ASME regional competition in the spring.

“This year’s competition is called ‘Mars Rocks,’” said Radziszewski.

Teams build a remotely controlled vehicle that is able to traverse obstacles (pieces of wood placed on the floor), collect rocks (crumpled pieces of tinfoil), deposit the rocks in a target (a bulls-eye marked on the floor with tape), and then park. All within four minutes, he explained.

At the event, an overhead projected the scores onto a wall. They were calculated from a simple algorithm (S = å(R*t) +1000P – W – A – 1000T – 5s) provided by ASME; some teams had faired better than others. Only a few of the groups had managed to place multiple rocks in the target and one unfortunate group had a score of negative 6844. Even so, this year the competition to qualify for regionals was greater than ever. One team arrived in the morning to discover that their robot’s “servo” had mysteriously seized during the night. They frantically ordered a part from; it was delivered by courier and arrived just in time. Another team brought in a ringer: a brother, who makes seismographs for a living, and is apparently a “soldering expert,” drove in from Ottawa to help.

“Good fucking job, eh,” a student from Radziszewski’s class remarked as a teaching assistant hovering over the course with a stopwatch signaled time.

“Yo,” his teammate replied, “that was fast.”

Their group – “Team 2” – had placed five rocks in the target area, three more than the next closest group, putting them several thousand points ahead of the competition.

Third year student Chris Wong’s group – “Team 17” – had yet to compete. To save on weight, they had gambled on their robot’s design: instead of joining the wheels together with metal tank treads, like the majority of the other teams, they had simply used a thick elastic band. “Treads are more reliable,” Wong admitted. But the elastics ensured that their robot weighed less than Team 2’s, meaning that they could win the contest simply by placing the same number of rocks on target.

The crowd, which had dispersed throughout the McConnell lobby while Radziszewski calculated Team 2’s score, surged toward the line of yellow caution tape surrounding the course as Wong readied his group’s robot.

With a squeal of rubber on ceramic, and the whirr of an electric engine, the robot was off, Wong methodically working the joystick while his teammates fed him instructions.

As the robot slowly moved around the course gathering rocks, it quickly became clear that Team 17 had built a contender. With time to spare, they were on track to match Team 2’s count and maybe even get the “parking bonus” – a 1,000 point reward for parking the robot in the same spot it started. Crucially, the elastic band gamble appeared to be working; not only were the bands holding up, but they were gripping the wooden obstacles better than the other teams’ tank treads, powering the vehicle over the strewn wood to grab rocks that most teams couldn’t reach.

With 20 seconds left Team 17’s robot had five rocks placed and Wong appeared to be steering the vehicle towards a sixth. “Leave it,” his teammate shouted, “get the bonus!”

The crowd, now counting down with the clock – “ten, nine, eight” – leaned in over the caution tape – “seven, six, five” – as the robot slowly crawled toward its parking space – “four, three, two” – and with a flick of Wong’s thumb, performed a perfect parallel park just as the count reached “one.”

A roar erupted from the crowd. Team 17 exchanged high fives. And Radziszewski, with a grin on his face, quickly added Team 17’s score to those already projected on the wall. This year’s contest had a new leader.