Students display robots at Coffman

by Peter Kauffner

Robots for pouring wine, cleaning CDs and tossing coins into a piggy bank were featured Wednesday in the Lots of Robots show in Coffman Memorial Union.
The robots were built by students enrolled in Professor William Durfee’s Introduction to Engineering, a new lower-division mechanical engineering course. About 100 students participated in the show, and they had five weeks to complete a suitable model for the project.
“They had to build a machine that does something interesting,” said Durfee. “I had no idea what to expect when I came here this morning. I’m very pleased with the results.”
The robots, which the contest rules define as a computer-controlled machine, were judged by contest jurors on six categories, including construction and reliability.
“They have to work every time you press the button. That’s the hardest part,” said Durfee. But most of the students had to do some last-minute tinkering with their creations in order to get them to work at all.
The robots also had to be small enough to fit inside a 4-by-4-foot area, and whatever action they performed had to take between 20 and 45 seconds.
Job prospects for mechanical engineers are looking up, both nationally and in the Twin Cities area, said Durfee, and the contest will help the students in the job market.
“(Mechanical engineering) is doing quite well, actually,” he said. “There was a time two or three years ago when it was pretty tight. (Building a robot) is the sort of thing you can put in your portfolio. It’s the kind of hands-on experimental experience employers look for.”
Yulyana Halim, a freshman from Indonesia, built “Mr. Bubbles,” a bubble-blowing robot.
“It’s tough for a freshman-level course,” she said. “I think I would have done better if I’d taken junior-level courses like Linear Circuits first.”
Justin Crank, who built a compact disc cleaner, had a more positive view of the course.
“Bottom line — it’s fun,” he said. “Ever since I was a kid I’ve been playing with little electronic toys. I just put them together like the book said to, but now I know how to hook them up. Electronics is magic.”
“The World’s Most Ridiculous Piggy Bank,” built by Miles Carlson, uses a lever to toss coins into an empty water bottle.
“As soon as (the instructor talked about the show), I thought of this. I’m just goofy, I guess,” said Carlson. “This is the coolest course I’ve taken so far. Everything else has been just reading and then doing problems.”
A light-sensitive toy car, built by Swati Chopra, moved across the surface of a piece of cardboard painted white and black. A photo transistor allowed it to detect when the color of the surface changes, and this guided the car.
“The photo transistor was the hardest part of the project. I had to install a light to get it to work,” said Chopra.
Qusai Kathawala’s robot poured wine into a glass. The robot uncorked a bottle filled with wine and pulled the top of the bottle down so it flowed into a wine glass.
“Pulling the cork is timed for 500 milliseconds, but it doesn’t always come out in time,” Kathawala said.