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Sir Loops-a-Lot Makes Valiant Try in MASLab Contest

By Gireeja Ranade


Friday, Jan. 30th was the day all the participants of the Mobile Autonomous Systems Laboratory (MASLab) were anxiously waiting for but at the same time dreading. It was competition night, and our robot “Sir Loops-a-Lot” was ready for action along with his peers -- “The Sniveling Little Rat Faced Git,” “Unfortunate Mishap,” and “Jerry” being some of them.

MASLab is an annual robotics competition held at MIT during the Independent Activities Period, currently in its fourth year. As part of MASLab, robots must perform certain tasks in an unknown color-coded playing field without any human intervention.

This year, the robots were required to gather red balls from the playing field or extract them from green cylinders. They then had to get the balls through yellow mouse holes in the playing field wall to score points. The problem was vision based where the camera is the robot’s primary sensor.

“Ludicrous Speed,” built by Brett M. Bethke ’05 and Albert G. Sun ’05, emerged as the winner of the competition by a large margin.

“The Grim Gripper,” built by Alex J. Crumlin ’05, James X. Sun ’05, Vincent Shu Hang Yeung ’05, and Edmond Lau ’03, snagged the prestigious MASLab Engineering award for most innovative and clever engineering for its efficient gripper that picked up both balls and cylinders.

By popular vote, “Over the Rainbow,” with a bright yellow sun around its camera and rainbow-colored ball-capturing mechanism, won the best dressed robot award. Its team consisted of Miao Sun ’07, Xin Sun ’07, Dawn D. Wheeler ‘07, Chris A. Wilkens ’07.

“Jousting With Windmills”

My team, “Jousting With Windmills,” was composed of two of my friends who live on my hall -- a junior in course VI and a junior in XVI, and myself -- an undecided freshman.

Deciding to participate was slightly daunting. Robotics was completely foreign territory to me, and I had almost no programming experience.

On the second day we were given a one hour crash course in Java and I walked out in a complete daze, thinking, “public void static WHAT?!” My teammates were both great about helping me out and taking it easy. After testing their patience multiple times, I finally managed to get the hang of what was happening.

It was the same sad story at the machine shop. Starting with no experience at all, I learned to use a scroll saw, drill press, sheer, and all the power tools were things. The staff was always encouraging us to be bold and experiment. I felt we were truly building something; it was not just a game to be taken lightly.

“Sir Loops-a-Lot” grows up

For almost all of IAP, we spent our entire day in lab. “Sir Loops-a-Lot” transformed before our eyes from a processor with a camera and motors into his own person, and he was certainly a robot with personality.

We, of course, were the protective parents.

There was always a certain anxiousness when we put him down in the playing field on his own and started him up. The first time he identified a red ball and drove towards it we were all so thrilled -- it was a true Kodak moment.

These moments of satisfaction were well balanced by frustration. I realized that we had been spending too much time in lab when I started yelling at our robot for banging into the walls when I was the one who had messed up the calibration. It seemed that every bug we fixed and every problem we solved gave rise to a new challenge.

The essence of MASLab

MASLab Director Edwin B. Olson G said that the organizers “subscribe to the fire hose theory” by asking students to tackle a very hard problem but at the same time providing students with the best equipment they can afford.

Christopher Batten G, the mechanical manager for MASLab, said the level of difficulty is that of a “research-caliber problem.” The question the MASLab staff asked themselves is, “What’s the coolest thing we can build?” he said. They both emphasized the fact that MASLab is more of a research exhibition and is different from 6.270.

During the first two weeks, the organizers gave lectures to introduce the beginners among us to various aspects of robotics. Olson said that they tried to tie what was taught into the students’ coursework so that they could appreciate both their classes and MASLab better. As a result, lectures often tended to veer off into the theoretical range, he said.

Our strategy

We initially spent a lot of time deciding how to attack the problem. In the end, our line of approach was different from most other teams. We chose to ignore the red balls in the playing field and attack only the green cylinders, each of which contained three red balls. This was a risk and an all-or-nothing tactic.

Our idea was met with a certain excitement from the staff. Batten later told me he thought it was a challenging path to take. At the same time he mentioned that this strategy was probably not the best approach to win the contest. “Hmmm...” I thought. “Should he have told us this earlier?”

It was amazing to see the large variety in the methods adopted to capture and deposit the balls. Every team had their own innovative idea. The winning strategy was comprehensive and went after both balls and cylinders. They developed an ingenious way of having the robot tip the green cylinders towards itself to capture the balls.

The big day

After long hours of tweaking and testing, we were praying that nothing bizarre would happen on contest day as a climax to our long hours in lab.

But it had to happen. Our performance was quite disappointing, as “Sir Loops-a-Lot” failed to capture a single cylinder. We still have not figured out what went wrong. I guess “Sir Loops-a-Lot” just decided to be moody, because he had been doing a wonderful job the day before.

In the end though, it just did not matter. We still loved our robot.

I am so glad that I decided to participate, in spite of being intimidated initially. I learned just as much through MASLab as I learned in my classes last term, if not more.

For someone who still lives in the land of 8.01, the idea that physics doesn’t really work the way it is supposed to was eye opening. Even though I am still lost when I see Java code, I discovered how wonderful it can be to talk to machines.

The experience was tremendously satisfying. We had built a robot, a pretty smart little guy, from scratch. This was the best way I could have spent my IAP.