Homemade Robots Took Over Caltech at Last Week’s “Robtacle Course” Competition

By BRANDON VILLALOVOS | Photography courtesy of Caltech

5:48 am | March 13, 2017

Five teams of dedicated, savvy and relentless Caltech mechanical engineering students put their homemade robots to the test on a specially made relay race inspired “Robstacle” course at the 32nd Annual Engineering Design Competition Thursday.

Students spent over five months and hundreds of hours designing and building the mechanical wonders for the one day event that showcased the impressive capabilities of a handful of the next generation of engineers.

“They’ve formed, stormed, normed and ultimately performed. That’s what I love to tell them. You cannot teach them that in the classroom. That team dynamic and that interpersonal dynamic and ability to learn how to get to the end goal and go through all of the steps in between is really what this experience is all about,” said Caltech Mechanical and Civil Engineering Professor Michael Mello.

The V15TA team—Yunsang Choi, Mayra Melendez, Allison Penn, Eduardo Plascencia, and William Yu—won first place by having its robots successfully traverse 27 pylons, a seesaw, and a ramp to deliver a ball into a hole at the end of the course.

The fundamental challenge of engineering design is solving problems while meeting basic physical constraints and design rules, according to Caltech.

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 transfer a baton and navigate between challenging sections of the robot obstacle “Robstacle” course.

The teams had to fabricate not one, but three robots each for the relay race type of event.

The students spent hundreds of hours creating the robots from scratch since October of last year.

“They have to go through the grueling trials and tribulations of design, fabrication, validation, reliability testing and going back to the drawing boards quite frequently,” said Mello.

The builds were done from scratch and included the utlilization of Caltech’s mechanical engineering shop that included various degrees of machining, laser cutters, 3-D printers, water jet cutters and any manner of tool you could imagine that goes into crafting robotic parts, according to Mello.

The event itself doesn’t quite represent the intensity of the projects to a spectator.

“Even though it looks like a game to the casual viewer, the intricacies of the electronics and the ability to communicate with a robot and have it actually drive a motor, turn gears and propel these things is no easy feat,” said Mello.

Mello explained how the students walk away from the intense experience with tools that that give them a leg up in the world of mechanical engineering on a professional level.

“Failure is really a part of this process. We would love everyone’s robot to function flawlessly on that day, but the greatest and most painful lesson they learn is that in preparation for industry, reliability of the device is the one thing that one has to really work hard to shore up,” said Mello.

For more information about ME72, visit http://mce.caltech.edu/events/me72.