• Left to right: Julien Barrier of France, MIT's Martin Jonikas of the United States and Alexandre Takeshi Ushima of Brazil collaborate on building a robot from scratch using a tablet PC as part of the International Design Contest. Although Jonikas won the 2.007 contest, he isn't allowed to reuse his design.

    Photo courtesy / Microsoft

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MIT robot contest draws students from around the world

They're off!

Like racers from the starting gate, 42 students from seven countries are plunging into the 13th annual running of the International Design Contest, which is being held this year at MIT. The contest's final phase, open to the community and the public, erupts on Friday, Aug. 16 from 1 to 4 p.m. in Room 26-100.

"This is where the physics meets the road. It's the greatest thing since segmented leavened loaves," said Alexander H. Slocum, professor of mechanical engineering and a MacVicar Faculty Fellow at MIT.

The enthusiastic student group, with representatives from Brazil, France, Germany, Japan, South Korea, the United Kingdom and the United States, arrived in Boston on Aug. 3. By Aug. 5, they had been whisked into MIT's Pappalardo Lab, home of the mother of all robot-design contests, Design 2.007, to meet their teammates and begin the design process.

The two-week-long International Design Contest (IDC) session is based on the semester-long MIT course 2.007 (Introduction to Design and Manufacturing). IDC had its origins in a collaboration between MIT and the Tokyo Institute of Technology; it combines aspects of engineering design contests from both schools.

The 2.007 contest in May was titled "Schwing!" The IDC 2002 contest is called "Rock and Roll." As in 2.007, the challenge to each of the seven multinational teams is to design and build a machine that can work like a harvester to collect hockey pucks and street hockey balls; work like a nightclub bouncer to control a swinging - er, schwinging - pendulum, and work like a "crouching tiger" of self-defense.

Machines in both contests somewhat resemble Sojourner, NASA's little rover that ran about on Mars in 1998. They're made of hundreds of mech-friendly items ranging from rubber bands to windshield wiper motors, all packed into a picnic-hamper-sized tub. Each team receives an identical tub of parts.

IDC's "Rock and Roll" and 2.007's "Schwing!" use the same carpeted table, but they differ in their scoring formulas and in some rules, so victors and veterans from 2.007 are forced to come up with new strategies.

Corporate sponsors of IDC 2002 include Microsoft, Mitsubishi Electric, NHK, PTC, Solidworks and Agencia Estado. In addition, some research from the iCampus RobotWorld program is being leveraged to help bring some of the latest design teaching resources to the IDC.

IDC 2002 contest participants will also be among the first early adopters in the country to use Microsoft Tablet PCs for design and collaboration, as part of MIT and Microsoft's "iCampus" alliance for educational technology. Dean Bob Redwine and Professor Rohan Abeyaratne, head of the Department of Mechanical Engineering, provided the resources for hosting the students in the dorms and for enabling the contest to be run from the Pappalardo Laboratory.

Despite the roaring of tools and the thrill of the fast track, IDC participants won't work around the clock. The group will get to be tourists as well as builders and designers; they've been to a luau opening dinner where they played musical chairs to the accompaniment of singing staff people, as well as a Red Sox game at Fenway Park, and they'll be treated to a grand finale New England clam bake.

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on August 14, 2002.

Topics: Artificial intelligence, Contests and academic competitions

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