Mobile robots fight for UM creators' glory


COLLEGE PARK -- If you don't yet have a personal robot in your home to walk the dog or powder the baby, don't despair.

Professor James Hendler's undergraduate students in Artificial Intelligence and Robotics at the University of Maryland have attacked the problem with Legos, instant camera motors and computer chips.

For a final exam yesterday, 18 students faced off in the Stamp Student Union building in the First Annual Mobile Robot Competition. Five student-built robots were pitted against each other in a tabletop game of electronic capture-the-flag.

After programming their robots, the students could only cheer or moan from the sidelines. Their beeping, whirring contraptions bumped about the 8-foot table on their own, trying to find an electronic beacon and shove it home before losing it to an opponent.

The victor was "The Fox," a speedy, reliable robot created by Kyle Campbell and Narin Suphasindhu.

"It's consistent," said Mr. Campbell, 23, a computer science major from Pittsburgh. "It happens to use very simple things very consistently in finding the beacon."

The team avoided tinkering, said Mr. Suphasindhu, 19, an electrical engineering senior from Thailand. "Once it worked, we didn't change it."

The event had its share of tragedy and sleepless nights, and glitches that would make a NASA engineer wince. But Dr. Kendler pronounced it a success, and gave everyone an A.

"As a professor, the amount of work and love we got out of the project was just wonderful. They duly deserve all the credit they'll receive," he said.

The competition is modeled after one held outside of classes at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Dr. Kendler borrowed the robot kits from MIT and incorporated their use into his class. "It's a great way to teach a lot about computer programming and robotics," he said.

In teams of two or three, the students designed and assembled their cat-sized robots using the plastic Lego blocks, camera motors, double-A batteries, rubber wheels, drive chains, sensors and computer chips.

Each team had to write a computer program instructing the robot how to feel its way out of a walled corral, locate and snatch the beacon.

Just getting to the competition was challenge enough. Seven teams were scratched before the bell.

A freshman team was nearly ready when its robot was demolished on Monday in a fall from a table. In another mishap, Heather Hill, 22, of Silver Spring, and Deepa Tawney, 21, of Germantown, were eliminated when their robot, "4800 Hours," stripped its gears five hours before the competition.

"Tobor," a whirring gizmo built by David Jodeit, 26, Stephen Klueter, 31, and Tom Swiss, 23, went into the ring healthy but developed a habit of jamming up against the corral and waiting for instructions.

Mr. Swiss, of Rosedale, said TV lighting seemed to overload the robot's sensors.

He took the loss with a philosopher's grace.

"That's part of the whole challenge," he said. "These are the things that happen in the real world that don't happen in the lab. We'll know that for next year."

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