Robots cruise and crawl to the finish line

Last Friday, under clear skies and with the blessing of warm weather, Carnival?s MOBOT competition took place on the sidewalk in front of Wean Hall. A new course record was set by Josh Pieper, a masters electrical and computer engineering student, for completing the course in one minute and one second. Pieper?s car, named ?Rio,? zoomed down the course, surprising spectators with its speed in following the line and beating the previous record by more than ten seconds.

Ten undergraduate teams competed in MOBOT, in addition to one open competition participant and three exhibition teams. The MOBOT course consists of a curvy white line that goes under 14 gates through which robots must pass without any human guidance. The last section of the course includes decision points where the white line diverges and robots must choose the correct branch to follow.

There is an award of $1000 for the first place undergraduate team, $500 for second place, and $250 for third. The first finisher in the open class competition, which is open to anyone associated with CMU, receives $250. Also, sponsors offer a $250 bonus for setting a course record. MOBOT is sponsored by Lockheed Martin Corporation and Harris Corporation.

Besides Pieper?s car, senior computer science major Sebastian Scherer?s car ?Mad Huh? also finished the course, but ran out of time a few seconds before crossing the finish line. Cars are limited to four minutes on the course, and Scherer?s car finished the course in four minutes and nine seconds. As a result, his performance was counted up until the thirteenth gate.

Scherer, the defending champion from last year, won first place in the undergraduate division for his performance. This was his fourth and final year competing in MOBOT.

John Bellinger, a senior mechanical engineering major, placed second in the undergraduate competition for reaching the eleventh gate in three minutes and 47 seconds.

His car was named ?Rattle & Hum? for the loud noises it made when turned on. The car actually made it to the finish line, but had gone through one of the gates twice by mistakenly circling. Therefore, it was credited up to the gate where it made the mistake.

Bellinger estimated that he spent about 100 hours working on his robot.

?I started working on this in February,? he said. ?I successfully ran the [full] course about two weeks ago, and then it was all downhill from there.? His car had some trouble when the front edge got caught on a crack in the sidewalk. Somehow it managed to pull free, drawing excited cheers from the crowd.

?Basically the story of MOBOT is anything that can go wrong will, and anything that couldn?t go wrong did anyway,? said Bellinger.

John Palmisano, a senior in mechanical engineering, placed third with his car ?Pikachu.? On his car?s first run, it had difficulty due to strong sunlight. ?It works fine on cloudy days,? said Palmisano. For his second attempt, he covered the car with paper and duct tape to shield it from light. The car then made it to the sixth gate in three minutes and five seconds.

Pieper, the open class winner who set the course record, explained some of the reasons for his success. When asked how his robot was able to go so fast and still complete the course, Pieper said, ?I built it way ahead of time and practiced.? He wrote software to simulate the MOBOT course so that he could test his algorithms much faster and without actually having to go to the course each time.

Pieper?s car was based on a hobby remote-control car, and he used a PDA to run his software. According to Pieper, his car was actually able to complete the course with times as short as 52 seconds in his practice runs prior to the competition, but believes his slower time on Friday may have been due to the 70 degree weather. ?It overheated under high power load today,? he said.

At last year?s MOBOT competition, Warren Saunders, a graduate student, entered his pet rat in the race. The rat didn?t make it far, quickly getting distracted by pebbles and grass. Unfortunately, the rat was not a contestant in this year?s MOBOT.

Zia Sobhani, a graduate student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, did an exhibition demo of a robot built from an ?80s era Heathkit Hero 1 kit.

?I picked up the gate because I can?t fit through the gate,? said Sobhani, referring to her robot. The trash can-shaped robot, which had a claw-hand on a robotic arm, grabbed the metal gate and attempted to move it around the robot back to its original position. Sobhani was awarded the Judge?s Choice award.

?Originally you had to type your code in in hex and record it on a tape cassette,? said Sobhani. However, she made changes to the robot that allowed a more convenient and modern interface.

?The most important thing about MOBOT is just that you make a simple design that just works,? said Scherer.

Good weather was certainly a help to MOBOT contestants this year, but without a doubt, many hours of work contributed to the top performances as well.