Entering byte-sized robot contest

The Baltimore Sun

Imagine building a robot so small that it looks like a fire ant, even when magnified by a factor of 50. Now picture the nano-sized David Beckham bot playing "soccer" on a field about one sixteenth the size of a quarter.

Sound like a feat?

For a handful of midshipmen and one recent graduate of the Naval Academy, it certainly was - given that there are no existing tiny robot parts, not to mention screwdrivers or hinges. The students spent much of the past year looking into microscopes and using chemistry and light to shape the tiny bots.

Today, they will test the fruit of a year of labor, when their dust-sized midfielder - inscribed with the omnipresent motto "Go Navy, Beat Army!" - will compete against four others made by graduate students from top engineering schools as far away as British Columbia and Zurich, Switzerland.

"We've got a fighting chance," said Ensign Paul Hodapp, who spent a year learning the ins and outs of nanotechnology for his "Capstone" project, a thesis-level endeavor for many technical majors at the academy. "But a lot depends on what we see down there. At such a small size, lots of things can go wrong."

The team left yesterday for Georgia Tech in Atlanta, this year's home to the RoboCup championships, an annual spectacle that brings together thousands of robot researchers from several dozen countries who produce soccer-playing robots on various scales, from the nano level to humanoids.

The competition, which started in 1997, runs through Tuesday. Prizes will not be awarded for the inaugural year of the "nanogram league."

The five robots will compete in three events: a two-millimeter dash (by proportion, it would roughly equal a 40-yard dash for people), where they "sprint" from one soccer goal to the other; the slalom drill, where "defenders" act as obstacles on the same field for a timed race; and the ball-handling drill, where they have to dodge more defenders while shuttling balls into the goals.

The Naval Academy microbot looks like a rectangle set on one leg with a tennis racket jettisoning out of its caboose. It works by sending voltage to the bot through nearby electrodes on the soccer field, which brings down the middle section of the robot that's elevated from the one leg, and then releasing the pressure, causing it to inch forward like a worm. The tennis-racket-esque tail is a pivoting mechanism.

Not counting labor, each robot costs about $3 to build, although thousands have to be produced at a time.

In a process similar to making a computer chip, students used ultraviolet light and chemistry, including a nail-polish-like substance and acids, to mold the robots into shape and build layer upon layer, said Samara Firebaugh, an associate professor of electrical engineering who calls herself a "nano-soccer mom."

"We're the only school that competes with all undergraduates," she said. "And all of our students started out this year without knowing anything about any of this, and know they've built the robots, made them work and will compete with them this weekend. That's a huge accomplishment."

The room where Ensign Hodapp, 22, and other midshipmen make and refine the robots requires a special get-up: booties on the shoes, latex gloves, a hairnet and a plastic lab coat, since outside dust is big enough to easily crush one of the robots. Hodapp, who will soon enter the Navy's submarine community, said he took up nanorobot making after breezing through the circuits and computer coursework associated with the academy's electrical engineering, or "Double E" major.

"I just wanted to move on to something new," he said.

Kanok Bunnag, an international student from Thailand, said he wasn't quite sure how building microscopic robots will apply to being a surface warfare officer for the Thai Navy, but he was excited for tomorrow's competition.

"Everything now is getting smaller," said Bunnag, 23, "so it's kind of a way to prepare for the future."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

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