Caltech Students Build Robots, Duke it Out in Tank Wars Battle

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6:22 am | March 9, 2018

Teams of Caltech mechanical engineering students put nearly half a year’s work of robotics design to the test for all to see at Caltech’s 33rd Annual Engineering Design Competition Thursday in front of bleachers filled with cheering spectators.

The campus’s Beckman Lawn was transformed into a battleground for their homemade robotic tanks to duke it out to show the impressive capabilities of the next generation of promising engineers.

“This is a real signature event for the mechanical engineering students in our department. It simulates a design and fabrication cycle in industry … many of them will go off in the private industry and be mechanical engineers,” said Caltech Mechanical and Civil Engineering Professor Michael Mello.

At this year’s competition, known as ME72, students formed five separate teams to design, build, and operate, under manual and/or autonomous control, a team of 3 robotic vehicles that can successfully operate autonomously during the first 40 seconds of the match; traverse and balance on a 10-foot see-saw; climb an elevated 4-foot platform; shoot Nerf balls at enemy robots; and push, activate a large button to “capture” the strategic position.

“What we mean by robots are robotic vehicles and the vehicles have to be designed and constructed by our students in full. These are not kits that they purchase online,” said Mello.

The robot builds were done from scratch every step of the way. Students used Caltech’s mechanical engineering shop for the high-tech machining, laser cutters, 3-D printers, and water jet cutters needed for crafting robotic parts, according to Mello.

The design process included utilizing personalized computer-aided design software (CAD), undertaking mandatory design reviews from faculty, and more.

“We essentially put them through what they would go through an industry where they would go from a design concept to prototypes, through reliability testing, all the way on through final stage where they deliver the product as they are today,” explained Mello.

The competition typically features two types of robotic designs: tank tread type robots, which are more in the tradition of what a tank might resemble, and also four-wheeled vehicles, which have front wheel drive, according to Mello.

“Both have their advantages and disadvantages and offer their own sets of design challenges,” said Mello.

Come competition time, however, the robots are mostly friendly on the battlefield.

“There’s no stopping robots from having to push against each other, that’s inevitable, but no intentional ramming because they are fragile to some degree and if we put teams out of commission, that really hurts the competition overall,” said Mello

Cassie, one of Caltech’s new bi-pedal autonomous robots, helped introduce the Tank Wars Robotics Competition – taking a stroll and walking alongside the playing course.

Cassie is part of Caltech’s new CAST Laboratory, Center for Autonomous Systems and Technologies and is truly a reminder of the innovation that students are capable of.

For more information about ME72, visit