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Battling ‘bot topples opponents

Harvard team claims victory in mechanized robot competition

Members of the HURC mech-warfare robot team (from left): John Holland, Timothy Tam, John Alex Keszler, Michael Opara, William Bryk, and Ivan Cisneros. (Photo by Eliza Grinnell/SEAS Communications.)

The mechanized robot crashes through the city, smashing buildings and scattering debris across the streets as it charges off in search of enemies to gun down.

Who is responsible for this scene of destruction? Not Skynet nor Optimus Prime; rather, a team of students from the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences were at the controls of this battle-ready ’bot.

The students, members of the four-year-old Harvard Undergraduate Robotics Club (HURC), took home first prize among six competitors in the Mech-Warfare Contest at Shepherd University’s annual ShepRoboFest on April 2. When the dust settled on the miniature city set up at the West Virginia university, the Harvard team’s was the last robot standing.

During the annual mech-warfare competition, robots fire BBs at targets on enemy bots, with each hit subtracting one of a robot’s 20 hit points. Team members control their robots remotely from a different room, and only see the cityscape (and enemy robots) through a video feed from a camera on the top of their machine.

It was exhilarating and rewarding to see their robot trounce the competition, especially since the SEAS team really poured their hearts into the design and development of the machine, said HURC co-president John Holland, S.B. ’17, mechanical engineering.

The robot began on paper shortly after the club was launched and, for most of the past two years it was nothing more than a few sketches and design ideas. The team began collaborating to build the robot when the fall term started and, over the next few months, spent plenty of long nights and weekends perfecting their machine, often through grueling trial-and-error.

“There was a real watershed moment when we finally had the code and the structure, so we put it on the table in the Active Learning Labs, sent the signal a few times, and eventually it stood up,” said John Alex Keszler, S.B. ’19, electrical engineering. “In a split second, it went from being just a pile of rubble and wires to a ‘living’ machine.”

As the competition drew nearer, the team continued to tweak and perfect their design. One of the biggest challenges they faced was making the robot walk. Lifting a leg off the ground threw the entire robot off balance, so the team developed two different solutions. One walking method is an insect-like creeping motion where the machine lifts one leg and forms a stable tripod with the others; the other type of walking involves moving the legs fast enough that the robot doesn’t have time to tip over, explained William Byrk, A.B. ’19, physics.

“We built this robot almost completely from scratch. In a way, it is kind of like our child,” said Timothy Tamm, A.B. ’18, computer science. “This is, by far, the coolest thing I’ve ever built. It was such an immensely powerful moment to watch our creation compete.”

Many teams that participate in mech-warfare competitions use robot kits as the base for their design, he explained. Developing the entire robot themselves allowed the team to be completely creative, and the assistance of the staff in the Active Learning Labs enabled team members to produce and test different design components quickly. That flexibility, along with the dedication and creativity of the team, were the biggest contributors to their success, said Holland.

“One of the things we strive for at HURC is to make everybody a multidisciplinary engineer,” he said. “Everybody comes to us with an area of comfort and expertise, but we all got out of our comfort zones to help produce the robot. I think every one of us has learned a new skill and become a broader engineer from working on this project.”

Robotic mouse rolls to victory

Forget Speedy Gonzalez, there’s a new lightning-fast mouse in town.

The micromouse robot built by the Harvard Undergraduate Robotics Club (HURC) outran 11 competitors to take home first prize in the annual competition at the Brown University Robotics Olympiad on April 9. The HURC robotic mouse navigated to the center of a complex maze twice as fast as its closest competitor.

The rolling robot incorporates a number of sensors that detect walls, feeding data to an algorithm that calculates the shortest distance to the center of the maze. That algorithm constantly readjusts based on the appearance of each wall, which then tells the autonomous robot where to move.

The team collaborated to build the device in the Active Learning Labs, drawing on data from past competitions while developing a brand-new robot.

“One of the biggest challenges was getting the robot to move exactly, because the motors are inherently inexact,” said Nathan Wolfe, A.B. ’19, computer science. “The robot has to make its way through the maze without ever slipping up a little bit. If it hits a wall, we have to restart.”

Anticipating problems and collaborating to find effective solutions are keys to the HURC team’s success, said Niamh Mulholland, A.B. ’19, computer science. For example, team members worked together to determine the best way to place sensors on the robot, since more sensors add more weight, which slows the robot down.

For Kyle Yoshida, A.B. ’18, bioengineering, the best part of being involved with HURC, aside from winning the competition, was the ability to apply some lessons he’s learned in engineering courses in a very hands-on project. 

Project manager Scott Sun, S.B. ’18, electrical engineering, was proud that he and his fellow roboticists were able to build such an effective maze-running “mouse” in only a few months.

“Success wouldn’t be possible without good teamwork,” he said. “You have to be sure that everyone is contributing, that everyone is bouncing ideas off each other. We all have a hand in making something that works.”

Click here to watch a video of the Micromouse robot in action.

For more information on joining the Harvard Undergraduate Robotics Club, email hurcofficial@gmail.com.

Harvard Undergraduate Robotics Club, Mech-Warfare

This robot, designed and built by the Harvard Undergraduate Robotics Club, took first prize in the mech-warfare competition at Shepherd University's annual ShepRoboFest. (Video by Eliza Grinnell/SEAS Communications.)

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