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Wastoid Triumphs Over Robot Pirates

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@ByName:By Hyun Soo Kim

@ByTitle:News Editor

@Body:After over nine rounds of double-elimination play, “Wastoid” emerged victorious in the 1994 LEGO Robot Design contest (6.270) Tuesday night.

Benjamin A. Calderon ’96, Yishai Lerner ’96, and Mihir Shah ’96 designed Wastoid, a robot which had a unique feature — a catapult that threw foam blocks as far as five feet across the playing table. It raised the audience in 26-100 to their feet in excitement.

This year’s contest was named Robo-Raiders, as the pirates (robots) sought to collect treasure chests (foam blocks) and drink pirate punch (plastic bottles). The pirates could choose to cross the ocean (a six-inch wide, two-inch deep ditch in the table) to pillage the opponent’s ship, or stay on their own ship (side of the table).

A complicated point-scoring system allowed for flexibility in strategies, as robots could play in either offensive or defensive roles. A team lost points for any blocks or bottles that were tipped from their upright positions or were knocked off of its side. A team could also earn points by picking up the bottles and blocks and either storing them in the robot or by transferring them to the home side of the table.

Robots also had the option of pushing a dinghy or a plank into the ocean to help get across.

The key to orienting within the playing environment was the robot’s sensors —its sight and touch. Robots were required to emit infrared radiation calibrated with the other robot’s IR sensors. Push-button sensors and switches provided input when the robot bumped into another object on the playing field.

The robots were programmed to follow instructions in Interactive C, a simpler version of the programming language C. With closed loop feedback, the robot could be programmed to react to different sensor inputs.

Other constraints included fitting inside one cubic foot and a period of play of 60 seconds. In the preliminary round, robots had to show minimum functionality, including starting and stopping at 60 seconds and orientation.

@BodySub:Wastoid was unconventional

@Body:The winning robot was unconventionally designed. Lerner said, “We just wanted to make the coolest-working robot. … We had an idea that no one in the lab was close to, so that was what drove us on.”

“I was very surprised it won,” said Pankaj Oberoi, one of this year’s organizers. “It defies the concepts you try to teach people, like making it simple. The [team members] were in my recitation, and I kept telling them to make it simpler.”

Oberoi added, “The thing that made them win was the robustness of their software, which made the robot sense the other robots better. When their robot went to the other side, it would predict where the other [team’s] robot was going and go the opposite way.”

Wastoid’s strategy was to cross over to the opponent’s side, pick up foam blocks one at a time, and throw them back to its own side. Each successful block throw netted Wastoid four points. The catapult was made of rubber bands and LEGO components.

Lerner said that the team worked an average of at least 12 hours each day through the three weeks prior to the contest.

Wastoid’s victory was a complete surprise to the team members. “It didn’t work reliably in lab. An hour before the competition, [the robot] didn’t work right once in ten tries. And then as soon as the competition started, it worked fine,” Lerner said. “We told each other that we are just riding this luck.”

@BodySub:Sanding table helped Wastoid

@Body:Lerner said that the robot did not work prior to the preliminary round, because the table had just been repainted and was stickier, and made the calibrations slightly off. Before the rounds started, however, organizers sanded the table down smooth. Wastoid worked perfectly on this surface, according to Lerner.

“The best thing … was hearing the crowd. There was one little boy jumping up and down in the aisles and calling out, ‘Wastoid, <\n>Wastoid,’ ” Lerner said.

Wastoid lost only one round, but only because of a loose sensor.

The third-place team of Ellis Chi ’96, Nimisha V. Mehta ’96, and Jiang Zhu ’96 followed a defensive strategy. Mehta said, “We were trying to get all the bottles and two foam blocks [on our side] before the other robot comes. We knocked them into a cage [on our robot]. We pulled the blocks into a space on the bottom of our robot.”

@BodySub:Contest is student run

@Body:6.270 is a completely student-run competition. This year’s organizers were: Matthew L. Domsch ’94, Pankaj Oberoi G, Karsten P. Ulland ’94, Sanjay S. Vakil ’94, and Anne Wright.

The competition requires $40,000 worth of component parts, of which the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science allocates $15,000. Corporate sponsors, including the Microsoft Corp., Motorola Semiconductor Inc., LEGO Systems Inc., Polaroid Inc., and Gates Energy Products Inc. provided the money and the rest of the components. Sponsors also provided shirts and snacks to the teams.

“I think it was probably the best contest we ever had,” Oberoi said. “There were a lot of different types of robots. In past years, the robots tended to be similar.”

“This year was much harder than other years. It involved a lot more creativity, and made for different robots,” Calderon said.

The variety of robot designs resulted from the greater complexity of the contest this year, Oberoi said. “There was no simple way to get across the other person’s side. The pieces were difficult to pick up. There was no simple strategy to get a lot of points. You had to really worry about what the other robot was doing. In past years, it wasn’t worth it to come across to the other robot’s side. This year, we rewarded a robot that could go on the offensive strategy.”

Lerner said, “At lab, everyone was working together, people were helping each other out. Most people didn’t consider it a cut-throat competition. None of us had ever worked so hard in our lives.”

Shah said, “It was a great experience because it was so much different from courses and lectures. Every day we would go there and work and it was fun.”

Mehta said, “We learned teamwork. It was really frustrating at times, when we didn’t agree on things, but then everything worked out.”