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Hundreds root for robots in 2.007 contest's 'Ballcano' battle

MIT's 28th festival of anguish, elation and extreme engineering -- the 2.007 Design Contest -- careened to new heights as Colin Bulthaup's wall-crawler, with its sleeve-shaped tunnel of triumph and its snappish little drone, defeated David Abrameto's elegant yet ultimately vulnerable extendo-track system last Wednesday night.

The pair of picnic-hamper-sized robots were battling to dunk blue rubber balls into holes on a 10-by-5-foot table set up in Johnson Athletics Center. A standing-room-only audience of about 1,000 -- including students, faculty, alumni/ae and members of the MIT Corporation -- shouted and cheered.

The final clash distilled two nights of tense elimination rounds among the 140 sophomores who participated in "Ballcano," this year's version of the annual tournament.

Each "Ballcano" battle began with an eruption of five blue rubber balls down seven chutes, with five balls dropping onto the playing field every second throughout the 40-second round. (The action alternated between two Ballcano tables.) Each student's machine was designed both to collect or deflect the balls and to dump them in one of two corner holes. The 2-point holes were on raised, ramped platforms, and the 1-pointers were level with the playing field.

The machines were provided electrical and pneumatic energy for just 40 seconds. The contestants "drove" via remote control. The action-adventure orientation of Ballcano came from Eberhard "The Ebbemeister" Bam-berg, a doctoral student in mechanical engineering, who designed the electronic ball-spewing device.

"The students seemed to like this year's contest. What more can I ask for?" said Mr. Bamberg.

Flushed and panting, Mr. Bulthaup, a junior in electrical engineering and computer science, chalked up his wall-crawler's victory to "strategy," noting that it would have taken "an amazing amount of precision" for any other robot to interfere once his was in position, its handsewn cheesecloth sleeve extended, metal cup shoveling balls homeward with a relentless thwop-thwop-thwop. "It ended up working -- unbelievable!" he said.

Mr. Bulthaup, who was given the ritual "1" Design 2.007 T-shirt and an MIT clock, also credited his driver, Sawyer B. Fuller, a junior in mechanical engineering and second-place winner of last year's Design 2.007 event.

In earlier rounds, the machine designed by Mr. Abrameto, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, had set record high scores for number of balls dunked. It operated with graceful economy: a wire track for guiding balls from Ballcano to the 2-point hole shot suddenly from a block-like base, once the base was positioned correctly. In place, the track looked like an elevated subway train's. In motion, it looked like an alien's delicate probing arm.

But Mr. Bulthaup's little drone had already taken its psychological toll.

"I drove out too quickly and yanked our anchor. I was worried about the drone," said Mr. Abramento, analyzing the final round. "It's an all-or-nothing machine."

In the penultimate round, Daniel Frisk, a junior in mechanical engineering, used a side-dumping boxcar-shaped machine to defeat Evelyn Wang, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, who positioned her below-deck shooter beneath the ball dispenser, then vibrated the machine so its back-and-forth shudder could literally shake off competitors. Frisk's machine, said Ms. Wang, "was really heavy, with really good traction. I just couldn't push him."

"Design 2.007 is where the physics meets the road," declared emcee Alexander H. Slocum, the Alex and Brit d'Arbeloff Associate Professor of Mechanical Engineering, whose high-torque auctioneer's patter over two nights of duelling robots kept audience and contestants alert to the nth degree.

His spirited references to geeks, Star Trek ("This happens to Captain Picard all the time!"), New Hampshire, his children, his parents ("My parents were lab partners; I was a study break"), and the Sloan School ("Can't make a decision? You need a management course!") just kept coming.

So did kudos to his students: "Hey! Remember -- every student here has never done this before. This is brave! It takes guts to be here!"

Professor Slocum also provided a stream of expert commentary about different types of machines, as in, "Shooters are exciting but vulnerable to the little guys who get under them" and references to "The extendo lazy-tongs bifurcated doo-hopper." Or, "It's the battle of the dump trucks."

In general, the hefty dump trucks ruled over more complex designs until the final rounds, when it seemed "robust" did not necessarily equal "musclebound thug," since Mr. Bulthaup's and Mr. Abramento's machines were both robust and complex.

But following a number of rounds where no points were scored, due to swift and awful attacks, the contest judges declared that each machine was required to score one offensive point before lurching to immobilize another.

In every other respect, from its first-night rapper's greeting by Mark Graham (SM '97 in mechanical engineering) and a second-night appearance by the Chorallaries, who sang "We are the Engineers," to its gripping finale, Design 2.007 was an excellent adventure.

In keeping with the nights' midway mood, Professor Slocum wore his own annual fashion contest, a purple T-shirt ("Danger! High Weirdness Area") under yellow measuring-tape suspenders (night one) and a Dilbert/Dogbert tie alongside those yellow suspenders, plus Panama hat (night two).

Also in keeping with the mood, Paul Gray, professor of electrical engineering; his wife Priscilla Gray; and Neil Pappalardo, member of the Corporation and active supporter of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, all contributed enthusiastic countdowns to the Ballcano launch -- in terms taken from from electrical engineering, sewing and Italian, respectively.

Other countdowns were called out in languages ranging from English to gibberish, including Spanish, French, Hindi, Hebrew, German, Slovak, and Tagalog, reflecting the international appeal of a good time.

The course that spawned the contest, Design and Manufacturing I, is taught by MIT faculty and staff under the direction of Professor Slocum. It begins in February, when each of the 140 students in the lecture course is given a kit of nearly 200 items ranging from electrical and pneumatic devices (windshield wiper motors, wormgear motors, air cylinders) to structural elements (wooden slats, aluminum sheets, steel rods, plastic tubing, rubber bands) to springs, gears, bearings and a category known as "other stuff" (Duplo blocks and string).

The Design 2.007 contest was co-created in 1970 by Woodie S. Flowers, the Pappalardo Professor of Mechanical Engineering. Professor Flowers stood in the audience this year, wearing black and white Dr. Seuss cat-in-the-hat headgear.

As the students repacked their machines into turquoise boxes (the materials are recycled), Professor Slocum surveyed the wind-down scene with satisfaction.

Sure, there were quite a few hoppers and dump trucks, and some of the extendo-ball trapper-arms looked related. But this year's 2.007 was another triumph for the design process itself -- the final four machines looked and worked in unique, unpredictable ways -- and Professor Slocum is fond of making things work and having fun doing it.

"This was super-duper. I didn't know till the last minute who would win," he said. "But I do know that if I were a space alien, because of this, I would never wipe out the earth."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 20, 1998.

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