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6.270 'RoboRat' Contest Launched

By Thomas R. Karlo
Contributing Editor

First in a series on 6.270.

On Monday morning, this year's annual 6.270 Autonomous Lego Robot Design Competition was launched as the 40 teams received their Lego blocks and electronic components as well as the rules of this year's contest.

This year's contest, entitled "RoboRats,"will challenge competing robots to collect foam blocks, or "food cubes," awarding various levels of points for the original and final locations of retrieved blocks.

As in previous years, the contest - which will be held Jan. 29 - will be a double elimination tournament with robots facing off against each other in 60-second rounds.

The theme of the contest, which is chosen after the actual rules and playing field are designed, was easy. "With all the rats running around on Vassar Street and Amherst Alley, how can you miss them?" said Geoffrey M. Phillippe '95, one of the contest organizers.

Students solder board, stack Legos

The robots, constructed from Lego building blocks and other components provided to the contestants, will be required to operate autonomously during the round. Each robot is controlled by a microprocessor board programmed by the team and carried on board.

In previous years, teams have pursued a wide range of strategies, including interfering with the opposing robot, throwing blocks across the table, and defending their own territory. This year's teams will be developing their strategy over the coming weeks.

Although in the past teams built the microprocessor board entirely, this year they received a partially completed board. Teams still will need to add additional components and fix any problems they encounter.

The decision to provide partially built boards was made in an effort to allow teams to concentrate on designing their entries. "People spent too much time fixing mistakes. With fewer mistakes, they spend less time debugging, allowing teams to concentrate on their game plan," Phillippe said.

In addition to soldering together the board, teams must build the mechanical component of their robots from Lego building blocks. Although for most students this isn't their first encounter with the popular children's toy, the competition requires the design of extremely robust components. Students can attend "Lego labs" this week to learn the tricks of Lego engineering and are also given written manuals elaborating on the techniques.

Students who wanted to participate in this year's contest were chosen by lottery during the fall term. Competing teams pay a fee of $150 for their set of robot components, but the market value of the components is around $750.

The difference is made up by the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and outside corporate sponsors. Microsoft is this year's primary financial sponsor, while Motorola, Hawker Energy and the Lego corporation have provided components.

Most of the 40 teams include the maximum of three members, although some teams have only two. Many teams entered the lottery as a group. Although the class does have a dedicated laboratory, a lot of work is done in students' living groups.

More students entered the lottery this year than last year, with over 400 seeking a place in the competition.

For this year's competitors, the process of designing and constructing an entry for the competition has just begun. Over the next three weeks, they'll be first building, then testing, and sometimes rebuilding their designs - in addition to learning to program the robots.

"This year's contest layout looks a bit simpler than in previous years," Phillippe said. "We'd like people to score in a reasonable fashion. We also want to see more interaction between robots, which is a more interesting design problem and more fun to watch."