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No Wheels Allowed in Robot Design Competition

Autonomous student-designed robots will battle it out May 17

EVANSTON, Ill. --- Eight autonomous robots will attempt to walk -- not roll -- to success Saturday, May 17, as they and their student designers compete in the 23rd annual Design Competition at Northwestern University. What happens during the challenge each year is usually pretty unpredictable. But during this year’s event, one thing is certain: there will be no wheels.

“Our mechanical engineering students complained that the mechanical component of building the robots was too easy,” said Nick Marchuk, lecturer in mechanical engineering at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science and coordinator of the competition. “So I decided to make it really hard by taking away the wheels.”

Free and open to the public, “Walking Robots” will start at noon at the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, 2133 Sheridan Road, on the Evanston campus. (A campus map is available online.)

(VIDEO: Follow one of the teams and its robot in the 2012 competition.)

Marchuk was inspired by a children’s toy called the Hexbug, which is a spider-like, walking robot with two motors. One motor controls forward and backward movement; the other controls turning.

Teams of three undergraduates from a variety of engineering fields have spent six months designing, building and programming their robots. According to Marchuk, some teams are borrowing the Hexbug’s two-motor approach, but others are assigning a motor to each leg for more complex movement.

The robots will compete one-on-one during the final competition Saturday, attempting to pick up Ping-Pong balls in the arena and return them to a goal. The robots already have competed in two preliminary rounds, with performance in the preliminaries having determined the standings going into the final. 

After the preliminaries, two robots stand out: teams Skynet and Jankbot Rises are going into the final competition tied for first place with seven points each. But the winner of the final will earn 12 points, so it is still anyone’s game, Marchuk said.

The event is expected to last three hours, concluding with an awards ceremony. Cash prizes will be awarded to the top three teams, with first place receiving $1,000. One team also will be honored with the annual Myke Minbiole Elegant Engineering Award, which is named for McCormick alumnus Minbiole who worked as an engineer until being killed in a hit-and-run collision in April 2007. The Minbiole family will present the $500 award.

More information on the 2014 Design Competition is available online.  

-Amanda Morris, writer/editor at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science, is the author of this story.

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