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2.007 contest goes down to the wire

Fuzzbumper rules.

That was the judges' final verdict after three hours of nail-biting suspense during Design 2.007, MIT's 27th annual dramatic, high-speed competition among sophomore mechanical engineering students.

This year's version of Design 2.007, "Pass the Puck," required each student to build a machine that would remove balls and pucks from one side of a raised, waist-high court and reach the opponent's side by scaling a steep eight-inch high "hill" reminiscent of World War I's Maginot Line. The machines competed in pairs in 30-second heats.

Fuzzbumper, the creation of Timothy S. Zue, triumphed over a machine built by Sawyer B. Fuller in the last 14 seconds of the evening that went off as smoothly as 500 shouting, cheering fans and some wobbly electrical power could allow. Both Mr. Zue's and Mr. Fuller's machines were fast, consistent and skillfully driven.

Mr. Zue credited Fuzzbumper's "simple, robust" design as well as the time he spent practicing defensive strategies for his victory. Fuzzbumper--a tank-like form with a wide painted bumper in front--had an all-business air as it rolled uphill and down to stymie its foes.

In contrast, Mr. Fuller's machine, an intricate robot that scooped up balls in a metal net and then lobbed them like an automatic tennis server over the hill, looked almost delicate.

"I said, 'What the hell, I'll do something fun,'" said Mr. Fuller. "I was surprised to get as far as I did." Both students described Design and Manufacturing I, the course that forms the basis for the annual design contest, as a "great time."

The master of ceremonies, Professor Alexander H. Slocum, who teaches 2.007, kept the standing-room crowd's enthusiasm level high. Dressed in Panama hat, yellow plastic tape measure suspenders, Dilbert-and-Dogbert tie, sneakers and a holstered flashlight, he set the fashion tone as well. His Galactic Safety Control Crew wore red T-shirts and bright yellow MIT hard hats, and carried SuperSoakers, the AK-47 of the water-gun world, for when people got "unruly," Professor Slocum quipped. His children attended in Star Wars T-shirts or Toy Story pajamas. Some of the judges and undergraduate assistants sported "2.007--License to Design" T-Shirts.

Some machines were instantly popular, inspiring wild cheering from the floor. These included "Inchworm," an A-frame that could almost "inch;" "From Above," which shot a pair of cheesecloth-covered tubes the length of the courts; "Mr. Plow," and "Wolfskill," a sleek, ominous low-rider. A two-clawed hill-climber evoked the movie Terminator.

Designs of a nasty, brutish and short appearance, dubbed "molesters" by the audience, generally defeated more elegant, net-bearing multipurpose ones when the two types met. Other designs, notably the "Wall Walker" or "Wall Crawler," which sought to circumnavigate the court, knocking out balls and pucks as they clung to the court's plexiglas walls, fell to Molesters eventually.

Designs based on a launching platform, and those in which a "baby" gathered up balls while its parent machine was supposed to attack the opponent, risked gridlock.

"Hey, remember all that physics and math you learned? It's really useful!" Professor Slocum declared. Later, as technical problems slowed the action, he discussed the aerodynamics of baseball caps (bill facing front or back?) and entropy, as in, "This is so. so. entropy-enhancing!"

The seeds of Design 2.007's excellent adventure were planted at the beginning of the term, when each student in the class was given a kit containing a windshield-wiper motor, two types of actuators, and more than 250 other items plus an almost infinite amount of electrical wire, glue, nuts, bolts and washers. Other materials included cardboard, wood, aluminum, steel, plastic, rubber, foam, cheesecloth, string and Duplo blocks.

Professor Woodie S. Flowers, a co-founder of the contest, performed briefly in a "special man-machine interaction" at 9:12pm. His opponent was a child's "bumble ball," a jittery motorized ball.

Contests from previous years have run the gamut from purely whimsical--Sandbox Derby (1976), Brass Rat Race (1978) and Skinny Dip (1980)--to slightly world-weary--Watergate (1974) and Not in My Backyard (1989).

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 7, 1997.

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