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Undergraduate Team Dukes it Out in BattleBots Competition

San Diego, CA, December 1, 2009 -- Last fall, 10 self-professed robotics geeks with very different backgrounds rallied together behind a common mission: to create a robot so limber and so destructive that it would take no prisoners. (This article, by Roxana Popescu, appeared in the November 23 issue of This Week @ UCSD.)

The team, a group of UC San Diego undergraduates named Triton Robotix, competed in the first ever BattleBots college division contest, in which remotely controlled robots try to tear one another apart in the name of glory. The show is a spinoff of BattleBots, which airs on ESPN. Like championship boxers, the robots are paired up in an arena in front of a live audience and TV cameras. They duke it out, eliminate the weak and continue advancing until they take the title.

Battle Bots UCSD
The team put in long hours and assembled the robot in the garage of mentor Donald Hutson.
Their masterpiece was a 120-pound mobile slicing machine they built with their own hands over about six months, incorporating a steel and aluminum body, four motors, four batteries, two rubber wheels, one very scary blade, and a prominently displayed UCSD decal.

The result? Actually, that’s still a secret. The competition, which took place in San Francisco in April, will air in weekly four episodes on CBS College Sports, a cable channel, starting Dec. 10.

Colter Cederlof, a senior mechanical engineering major, said his contract only allows him to give this cryptic update: “We did well at the event.” He encouraged anybody who is curious about the results to tune in to the broadcast, adding that none of the team members has seen the footage yet.

For Cederlof, the most thrilling moment was the first match, when months of effort and uncertainties suddenly crystallized. Up until that match, the opposition had been very abstract. Cederlof said he and his teammates often asked themselves, What kind of weapons might the other bots have? Would the other bots be better at offense or defense? And was their own bot sturdy enough?

“We weren’t sure what we were going up against,” he said.

Matt Davis, the team’s captain, explained that not having a clearly defined goal during the design phase was one of the most exciting aspects of the endeavor because it forced everybody to be very creative and very analytical.

“It got us thinking about how to approach a very open-ended problem. We’re building a project that’s going up against an undefined objective,” Davis said. “It’s a continuous hide-and-go-seek of weapons and defensive mechanisms.”

The final design honed in on two goals: to destroy and to survive.

“Our approach was a modular one. We had an offensive configuration and a defensive configuration. So, if we went against a very offensive, high energy robot, we could survive, and if it was less offensive, we could do some damage,” he said. (The teams were allowed to touch up or adjust their robots between matches.)

Battle Bots UCSD 2
The battle-ready BattleBot.
As the competition progressed, the reality kicked in: Triton Robotix had built one bodacious bot.

“Some of the robots were spinning towards ours at 200 mph,” Cederlof said. “So, we built something that could take that blow over and over again.”

Getting there was a long and twisty road, filled with conflicting ideas in the research and design phase and some logistical and budgetary difficulties in the execution phase.

Early on, Cederlof said, the hard part was “finding something that all 10 of us could agree on, because we all had different ideas.” Over time they learned to exploit each other’s strengths. The team included several mechanical engineering majors, an aerospace engineering major, and one student in cognitive science.

“The cogsci guy was definitely the most creative,” Davis said. “The cool thing is that you don’t need a really technical background to come up with really good ideas.”

Another difficulty was financial. The parts added up to more than $3,000, and college students don’t typically have that kind of pocket change lying around. So, they applied to the Triton Competition Fund and paid for parts with that money.

Davis and Cederlof said none of this would have been possible without the help of Donald Hutson, a design engineer at The Neurosciences Institute and the team’s mentor. Much of the robot was assembled in Hutson’s garage, and he supplied some of the seed money.

Besides honing skills in teamwork, research design and project management, the experience also helped participants in a very concrete way — on the job market, that is.

“I’ve already almost gotten two jobs because of this,” Davis said. His dream job is to design satellites or Mars rovers for NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Cederlof, who grew up watching BattleBots on television, said his dream job would be with Disney, designing rides.

Before they get there, these promising engineers are focusing on the shorter term – namely, the 2010 competition.

“We’re looking for campus support,” Davis said. “Space to work. Financial support. Material support, aluminum, steel. If you have titanium, we’ll take it off your hands.”

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