Mobots skedaddle on record-breaking runs

Between Spring Carnival headliners the Roots and Human Giant, a crowd of people gathered on the grass outside Wean Hall to watch the 14th annual Mobot races, an event with just as much heart — though slightly fewer arms, legs, and opposable thumbs. The term “mobots” is short for “mobile robots,” a blanket term for the competition’s self-contained, autonomous entries.

Though slightly less hyped than Carnival draws Booth and Buggy, the Mobot races this year attracted a large, vibrant crowd of all ages. Similar to a high school science fair, participating teams spanned a wide range of experience and function, from the kid with the non-erupting papier-mache volcano to the honors student with the PowerPoint presentation and a cure for cancer. But perhaps unlike any science fair, audience members greeted ability and effort with equal zest, cheering on broken records and broken robots alike with tangible enthusiasm.

For the Mobot races, teams must fit into one of three categories: undergraduate, open, and exhibition. Undergraduate teams are restricted to current Carnegie Mellon students, competing for $1000, $500, and $250 prizes for first-, second-, and third-place mobots. Open class teams may include graduate students, faculty, and staff, and the winning team receives $250. In order to win these prizes, the undergraduate and open teams must make it through at least the second gate. Exhibit entries are not competitive, participating only to gain experience and bragging rights. All teams are eligible for the $100 Judge’s Choice award.

The basic Mobot course exists year-round outside of Wean Hall: a painted white line that weaves left and right on the sidewalk, encompassing two bicycle ramps and several jarring spaces between concrete slabs, among other potential dangerous spots. Though mobots are not required to stick to the white line, most use visual sensors to follow its path, which traverses the race’s 14 gates.

The course’s gates are each 18 inches wide, with an additional one at the starting line, Gate 0, an homage to computer scientists’ tendency to start counting early. The last six gates are particularly difficult to run through, as before them the white path splits into a series of “decision points,” which the mobots must navigate correctly in order to successfully arrive at each gate. Each team gets three runs on the course, and the judges use the highest of those three scores to crown the winners.

In years past, the Mobot Races have included a MoboJoust, where the contestants (called JoustBots) battled life and limb for the pursuit of glory. However, recent Mobot races have excluded the event, mostly to save the teams’ hard-labored creations from an untimely demise.

The races began with the undergraduate entries, some of which were more on the papier-mache-volcano side of the spectrum. The first three mobots — A.A.I.T., Pajamas III, and Rewind — failed to make it past the first gate. Of these, Rewind was the most amusing, as the mobot seemed to ignore the white line completely and instead rolled forward in a circle. Rewind was named for its creators, computer science major Rich Hong, MechE William Hamilton, and ECE Daniel Benjamin, all first-years, whose first names make “RWD” when put together. “It ended up being an appropriate name,” Hamilton said, commenting on the mobot’s erratic behavior.

Following the first three unsuccessful runs, the undergraduate team Low United, equipped with an Apple iSight, made it past the fourth gate in 49.26 before turning off into the grass. Rounding out the undergraduate category, GTG (Good To Go) rolled through the first gate before skedaddling off track, ending with a time of 17.22. Thus, as the undergraduate first run came to a close, Low United held the first-place spot with GTG in second and an unclaimed third-place seat.

First up for the open class contestants was Pikachu, an adorable little mobot that slowly and steadily made it to the seventh gate in 2:30.87; the mobot hit one of its arms on the last gate, which proved to be a problem. During the lengthy first run, creator John Palmisano, an ’04 alumnus, explained to spectators that he’d only received his camera in the mail that morning, after leaving it at home. Pikachu was one of the most ingeniously designed robots, with a camera that moved separately from the mobot’s body. Thus, the mobot body appeared to always be following the camera, which was in turn following the line. This method usually worked, though there were occasional problems on the turns. “When the line curves, the body doesn’t always follow the line,” Palmisano said.

Following Pikachu, the competition turned truly memorable, as the other open-class entry, Mike and Jeff, zoomed flawlessly through the course with a time of 51.09, breaking the one-minute mark and the course record in a single run. The previous course record, set by open class contestant Joshua Pieper’s mobot Rio in 2004, was 1:01.43. Thus, as the open class’s first run came to a close, Mike and Jeff held first place, while Pikachu hung on at second.

Following the open class, the exhibition entries showcased a younger generation of engineers, beginning with competitor Megan McKelvey, a student in C-MITES (Carnegie Mellon Institute for Talented Elementary and Secondary Students). In the first run, McKelvey’s mobot MEGUBOT made it past the first gate in 12.16. Following MEGUBOT was Lego Aces, a LEGO-constructed project headed by Eric Miller, who explained that his project suffered slightly from a last-minute rust: “We were kind of on a time crunch with our races,” he said. In the first run, Lego Aces couldn’t make it to the first gate, joining the ranks of the first three undergraduate entries. Finally, mobot DJB XIV rolled through gate eight at 2:20.06.

For the most part, the second and third runs upheld the show’s beginning. For the undergraduate class, A.A.I.T. didn’t make it; Pajamas III vibrated in place at Gate 0 before its creators put it out of its misery; and Rewind traced out a 390-degree circle and chance between gates zero and one before team-member Hamilton hauled it off the track. Following a last-minute MacBook hookup, Low United took off, noticeably wheezing as it stumbled halfway to the first gate, convulsing forward and back, before its creators seniors Wai Yong Low (ECE) and Yucheng Low (computer science) — no relation — took it out of the race.

Next, GTG hit the first gate, backed up, and paused, in a moment of contemplation resembling that of a real person. Later, its creators — sophomore MechE Meng Yee Chuah and computer science juniors Zhiquan Yeo and Lawrence Tan Kee Tee — explained that the mobot’s camera, a webcam, was thrown off by shadows cast by the gates. As GTG rolled perilously quickly down the first bicycle ramp, the crowd’s anticipation was audible and contagious. The mobot made it to the eighth gate in 3:07.35, rolling into first place and bumping Low United into second.

As the second run switched to the open class, there was still no third-place undergraduate mobot. In the open class, Pikachu slowed down a bit to reach the same seventh gate, where his arm was once again caught, in 2:37.52. Mike and Jeff dazzled audiences once again, breaking its own record by reaching the 14th gate in 50.71. In exhibition, MEGUBOT and Lego Aces both made it to the first gate at 11.40 and 37.80, respectively, and DJB XIV left the race due to technical difficulties.

Though the third and last run was sure to be eventful, one of the most exciting events happened during the intermission proceeding. Interested in getting its mobot to drive in a straight line, team Rewind took its Polaroid-camera-looking invention out for a practice spin, during which the mobot actually made it to the first gate. This was significant: All the team had to do was pass through the first gate again, during the third run, and its members would win the $250 third-place prize.

However, during the third run, following flops by A.A.I.T. and Pajamas III, Rewind was once again unable to make it to the first gate, and wound up stuck in the grass. Despite this disappointing performance, the men of Rewind kept up their spirits. “It’s too sunny,” Hamilton shrugged. “We had a practice run that went very well.”

After Rewind, Low United made it once again to the fourth gate, this time at 51.23, thus solidifying their best run as their first time of 49.26. GTG made it smoothly through the first gate, only to face-plant going down the bike ramp — thus ending with a final first-gate time of 16.45. Thus, GTG ended in first place for undergraduates, with Low United behind, and a sadly empty third place.

In the open class, Pikachu showed up a mobot amputee, as his creator removed an arm to keep him from grabbing onto the seventh gate. The arms served no function for the Mobot races to begin with, though Palmisano explained that he built Pikachu to compete in multiple robot competitions, some of which required arms. “Ideally, in the end I want it to play fetch with me,” he added. The amputation was a success, as Pikachu made it to gate eight this time, coming in at 2:53.78. Next, mobot Mike and Jeff once again zoomed through the course, this time barreling off after the fourth gate at 17.67, as the creators — Michael Licitra and Jeff McMahill, both staff members at the Robotics Institute — increased the speed past the mobots’ calculation abilities. Still, two records in one day is probably enough.

In exhibition, MEGUBOT jutted forward and was unable to curve with the first bend in the track, and Lego Aces likewise roared off the line, leaving both teams out of luck.

At the Mobot Races’ “15th Gate” celebration following the competition, MEGUBOT’s creator Megan McKelvey won a Judge’s Choice award for her effort, which was later also awarded to Pikachu mastermind John Palmisano, in part inspired by the enthusiastic PowerPoint he delivered at the 15th Gate. As the event wore to a close, all conversation revolved around one thing: next year.

“There’s plenty of room for improvement for a faster robot,” said Michael Licitra, one half of Mike and Jeff, already planning to beat his mobot’s own record.