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MIT/CRLS team advances in national robot contest

MIT team member Erix Wilhelm tightens the chain on the MIT/CRLS Psychedelic Team robot entry in the FIRST competition.
MIT team member Erix Wilhelm tightens the chain on the MIT/CRLS Psychedelic Team robot entry in the FIRST competition.

A robot-building team of students from MIT and Cambridge Rindge and Latin School (CRLS) took second place in a regional FIRST competition last month in New Brunswick, NJ. The team also won "Best Play of the Day" honors for outstanding strategic play in one of the qualifying matches earlier in the competition.

Thirty-seven teams participated in the Johnson & Johnson Mid-Atlantic Regional competition, which pitted pairs of robots in a two-minute competition to score the greatest number of points.

The FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) Robotics Competition was founded by entrepreneur Dean Kamen to generate interest in science and engineering among youth. The contest, which pairs high school students with engineers from corporate sponsors, gives the students the opportunity to participate in an intense design and engineering experience.

Fashioned after MIT's Design 2.70 competition, the FIRST contest challenges students to design and build robots to perform a given task. The task changes every year and is unveiled at a national kick-off. Participants then have six weeks to brainstorm strategies and design and build their robot.

"FIRST is a great experience that exposes kids to engineering as no other activity can," said biology senior Rainuka Gupta, engineering team leader. "These kids had to learn the physical principles necessary to build a robot, and then they had to apply their new-found knowledge. We teach them basic physics and mechanisms so that they understand what can realistically be accomplished."

Over the course of the last two months, 10 MIT students worked with 15 students from CRLS. "The CRLS kids helped come up with the ideas, and the MIT students helped with the implementation," Ms. Gupta explained. In the competition, points were scored by lifting disk-shaped pillows to a height of eight feet and maneuvering a large octagonal platform (called a puck) on casters around the playing field.

"We designed a robot that would be versatile and could pair well with any other machine," said Eric Wilhelm, a senior in mechanical engineering. "In the end, we had one of the fastest machines out there and were able to use that to our advantage to control the puck and outmaneuver opposing teams."

"It's great to see all of our hard work pay off," said Ela Ben-Ur, a graduate student in mechanical engineering and leader of the 1997 and 1998 teams.

Financial support for the effort came from the office of President Charles Vest, Analog Devices, Neil Pappalardo, Intelligent Automation, Solid Works, Parametric Technology Corp. and Mathworks. Intelligent Automation and Product Genesis also donated engineers to advise the team.

"We're encouraged by our success to date and are looking forward to competing at the national championship at the end of April. There will be a lot of strong teams out there -- it's going to be fun," Ms. Gupta said.

A version of this article appeared in the April 7, 1999 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 43, Number 25).

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