IT students demonstrate their creative prowess at robot fair

Jake Kapsner

One maroon and gold Cabbage Patch doll pumps the stomach of another until candy pops from its mouth in “Doing the Heimlich, Gopher Style.”
Sophomore Rupal Shroff, creator of the curious, coughing doll, was one of 186 Institute of Technology students who put robots on display for the public Wednesday in the Great Hall of Coffman Union for the third annual Mechanical Engineering Robot Show.
The show teemed not only with aspiring engineers, but also family, friends and judges who gleaned tables packed with autonomous, computer-controlled machines that students spent six months creating.
Byron Raymond, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, was one of about 40 judges who roamed the Great Hall assessing the machines’ ruggedness, reliability and innovation.
“There’s no winner,” said William Durfee, mechanical engineering professor and director of design education.
Judges evaluated each robot based on its merit, creativity and whether it lasts the whole show, he said.
Durfee, who has taught the course for three years, said the two-quarter sequence teaches beginning engineer students about design principles and deadline constraints.
“And putting on a display is something professionals have to do: stand up in front of a crowd and talk about their design,” is something engineers aren’t generally good at, he said, and this gives them a casual environment to practice.
From a roving red ladybug to battling “Star Wars” toys and something called the “Ping Pong Pal,” the robots displayed a mixture of human design ingenuity, wackiness and good plain fun.
Sophomore Jeff Kiecker’s creation, “The Junkyard Drum Machine,” plinked out an acoustic tin can beat with help from a computer-programmed loop sequence.
While numerous robots had sports themes — from football field goal kickers to hockey-puck shooters — they all followed the same design constraints.
Robots had to have at least one moving part, operate for no longer than 45 seconds and “do something interesting” for less than $25.
The cost constraint meant found objects like sheet metal, soda pop bottles and scraps of wood formed the foundation for the students’ robots.
Sophomore Jon Robelia’s robot display, “Texas Tea,” had a doll named Jed driving a spinning drill into a map of Texas. A blower then spewed cassette tape from the ground as a sign with a dollar symbol passes in the horizon.
Robelia, an admitted “Beverly Hillbillies” fan, said he learned a lot about electronic circuits and BASIC computer programming code.