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Students Test Robots As Competition Nears

By Thomas R. Karlo
Contributing Editor

With the 6.270 Autonomous Lego Robot Design Competition in its second week, the laboratory where competitors work has come alive with the sound of transmissions and chassis being tested.

Starting with a box of pieces a little over a week ago, competitors have spent from six to 10 hours each day working on their projects, and many teams have even built machines to test and experiment.

In addition to starting the construction of the mechanical Lego sections of their robots, teams also have constructed some electronic systems like the infrared beacons used by robots, sensors, and chargers to replenish the robot's batteries.

"We're excited that our geartrain works properly,"said Adrian B. Danieli '97. Danieli was in the lab writing software to drive his team's robot, while one of his partners, Janet Marques '98,continued to build the robot's chassis.

Although teams have started to test their transmissions, most have not yet started to build or test mechanisms for picking up blocks, a critical part of scoring points in competition. Many will deal with the issue once they have a chassis that can drive around the table. "We just have to figure out how to pick up some blocks and we'll be all set," Marques said.

The competition is a learning experience for many of the 6.270 teaching assistants as well. "It's a lot more work than Ithought it would be," said teaching assistant Edwin W. Foo '98.

Being a teaching assistant isn't all about work, however, and most assistants are past competitors who still want to be involved in the course. "If you sign up to [be a] teaching assistant, you want to play with the machines,"Foo said.

Bugs found in processor boards

Although the competition is progressing on schedule, there have been some setbacks. Organizers had hoped that providing contestants with prebuilt processor boards, rather than components, would save them time. In past years, much of the first week for competitors has been occupied building and debugging the processor boards, which become the brains of the machines.

Unfortunately, the new boards also have had problems. "We're having the same failure rate. With the prebuilt boards, running into bugs is just accelerated," Foo said. Approximately 40 to 50 percent of the processor boards had problems, including the first three the teaching assistants built themselves, Foo said.

Despite the problems with the prebuilt processor boards, most teams now have their boards working properly and are beginning to grapple with the problem of how to win the competition. With only two weeks until the competition, teams will need to complete their vehicles soon to allow time to test and debug them. Also, as the competition draws near, the lab space and computer time will be harder to get, slowing down work.

"We want to have a working vehicle by next week," said Katherine E. King '97, who was in the lab building a mechanism to pick up blocks.