AEPi dominates in Carnival Mobot Races

One contestant makes some last-minute changes on his robot. (credit: Angel Gonzalez | Photo Staff) One contestant makes some last-minute changes on his robot. (credit: Angel Gonzalez | Photo Staff) The Robotics Club mascot dances and cheers on race contestants.  (credit: Isaac Jones| Comics Editor) The Robotics Club mascot dances and cheers on race contestants. (credit: Isaac Jones| Comics Editor)

No Carnival event showcases Carnegie Mellon’s nerd pride more than the Mobot (mobile robot) Races. It is a festival of motherboards, switches, gears, and glasses, where brains reign supreme and hard work pays off. The 16th annual Mobot Races were a great display of mechanical innovation and programming ingenuity.

The rules of Mobot are simple. Rain or shine, each robot must travel a 255-foot slalom course marked by a white line on the sidewalk in front of Wean Hall, passing through 15 gates in order along the way. The robot that reaches the farthest gate with the best time is the winner and receives a $1000 prize. The second-place winner receives $500, and the third-place winner receives $250. The majority of the robots were created by undergraduate students, and others competed in the exhibition and open sections.

The minutes leading up to the first race were tense. All the teams were making final adjustments: checking to see if their robots actually followed the line, detaching and reattaching wires to various circuit boards, and walking their robots purposefully down the hill with laptops in hand. There were groans, and even a yelp from the team cautiously sticking a screwdriver into a mess of wires. And as the wind picked up, the race was ready to begin.

Of course, as at many Carnegie Mellon events, there were a few curious participants. Greg Armstrong, a senior research technician in the Robotics Institute, came out of Wean Hall in a plaid kilt and toga, wielding an enormous sword. During the races, he strolled up the walkway, glancing at each mobot, waving his sword in the air, and every so often shouting things like “Those aren’t Legos!” and “Get your mobots ready!” In the background, Red Robot, the Robotics Club’s human-sized robot mascot, wandered the field playing Daft Punk’s “Technologic” and dancing with children and students. A couple of people on pogo-stilts walked by nonchalantly.

The area surrounding the pit stop where the mobots were being adjusted began to fill up with fans, all eager to see exactly what sort of bizarre machines would be at the event this year. The crowd was made up of students, children, alumni, and professors.

There are many different approaches to completing the Mobot course. Almost all involve following the thin white line that winds through the gates and down the hill. The robots usually use a sensor array attached to their undersides to direct their steering, while an independent motor pushes them forward. Once the mobots go off track, their chances of coming back are slim to none. The record for the course is an astounding 33.99 seconds, or 7.5 feet per second, set by two Carnegie Mellon robotics staff members, Michael Licitra and Jeff McMahill, in 2009.

This year, there were several different interesting constructions. One mobot, named Jiggyfly, was made with a few sheets of looseleaf paper, a block of wood, and a hacked Game Boy. Another, named Stingray, was a triangle with a few wheels sticking out, completely covered in black duct tape. And finally, Alpha Epsilon Pi’s robot used a camera and a netbook and seemed to track the line in front of it and adjust its path that way.

Each of the 15 robots were placed at the starting points, switched on, and let run. Some began extremely quickly and were loudly cheered on, while others left the starting point at a snail’s pace. All the mobots completed the first gate, following the line almost exactly, but many couldn’t handle the pressure when they began to descend the hill. The few who made it past the first hill managed to complete the majority of the course. Those who successfully stayed on track down the second hill had to struggle through a hodgepodge of crossing lines at the end of the course.

In the end, AEPi’s robot was this year’s undergraduate champion, passing through all 15 gates in a time of 1:17.20. The robot, created by first-year computer science major Nathanial Barshay, was able to travel in a smoother trajectory because it wasn’t adjusting every single time it slightly deviated from the line. The winner of the open class section, Megubot, was created by C-MITES students Megan and Terry McKelvey. It used sensor arrays to control both acceleration and direction but couldn’t get down the second hill.

Second place in the undergraduate category was team Zoidberg, made up of computer science junior Jake Poznanski and mathematical sciences junior Itai Stein. The robot completed eight gates with a time of 1:19.69. In third place was Stingray, created by electrical and computer engineering sophomore Kwabena Walden Agyeman, also completing eight gates, but with a slower time of 1:41.95. Megubot won both the judges’ choice and also the open section, completing nine gates in 2:27.44.

Mobot is a tradition that in many ways defines the interdisciplinary approach Carnegie Mellon strives towards. In the future, we can expect many more cardboard cyborgs, armed and kilted Scotsmen, and — most of all — clever and innovative robots.