Since school began in September, 55 teams of freshmen have been building robots like Mr. Sparkle and racing them against each other through an obstacle-course-laden playing field in an effort to find out who could build the fastest, most agile robot. Each robot uses a handful of light sensors and a set of touch sensitive bumpers to navigate its way through the course. No remote control is necessary to guide the robots. They make decisions about how to navigate the course based on instruction spit out from a matchbox-sized computer somewhere within the robot's casing.
More than 300 freshmen have been building Mr. Sparkle-like robots as a part of an introductory engineering course designed to teach the students about electrical engineering, mechanical engineering and teamwork. By this past Thursday morning, the race to find the city's fastest robot had been narrowed to 12 teams of finalists including the team that built Mr. Sparkle.
At 9 a.m. in a basement room, back-lit only by a green neon light that would not interfere with the robots' sensors, the would-be champions met.
The winners would each receive certificates for $50 from Amazon.com. Second place winners could look forward to $25 gift certificates.
The competition itself has a gladiator-like feel to it since only two robots races at a time. At the signal of a referee, they are dropped at opposite ends of an 8-foot by 4-foot playing field while the room fills with shouts of encouragement from the robot's designers and the whir of their little engines.
At about 10:45 a.m., Mr. Sparkle faced a challenge from Panthers, a robot that had seen better days.
"We've got duct tape all over this thing," said Chanel Lubin of her robot just before the race. "Our bumpers are falling apart. Our software needs debugging and I think our batteries are failing."
Still Panthers had defeated five other robots previously.
When the race began, Panthers set off across the playing field quickly. But it soon had forced its way into a corner, where it obstinately would ram its head and retreat a few inches before ramming its head again. All Lubin could do was hang her head.
Across the field, the team that had assembled Mr. Sparkle was cheering like they were at a professional sporting match.
"There is a small corner there!" yelled Jared Sapp, the member of the team largely credited with writing the software that instructed Mr. Sparkle how to react to the data it collected with its sensors. As Mr. Sparkle would approach a corner, Sapp would yell at the robot and lean the way that he hoped Mr. Sparkle would go to get himself out of the jam.
"There, a big corner there!" he yelled as Mr. Sparkle made his way towards a dead-end. "Uh-oh. Get out of there!"
And just as his programmer hoped, Mr. Sparkle was able to work his way out of the corner by ramming it a couple of times with his bumper and adjusting his angle of attack each time. Soon Mr. Sparkle was able to cross the entire field, hitting the necessary light targets along the way.
And so it went, robots with funny names, like Alf, came and left.
Meets his match
Eventually Mr. Sparkle was felled by a swifter robot named Team D. Team D won the entire competition. Mr. Sparkle came in second.
Perhaps the most impressive robot there was constructed by Associate Profesor of Electrical and Computer Engineering Ed Blicharz. Blicharz, who dreamed up and supervised the competition, had built a robot he called Darth Vader.
Like Mr. Sparkle, Vader had beat up on Panthers early in the morning. After the victory, Blicharz said that the project was not only fun, but that it taught the students to think across a wide range of disciplines.
"We are challenging the students to learn elements of electrical circuitry, mechanical design and software programming," he said. "They have to make a lot of decisions, like how many sensors to use and where to place them to name one."
Blicharz also said that he hoped that the teams were learning something about teamwork. Each group was asked to pick a project manager and each member of the group was supposed to be responsible for a specific task.
"There is a kind of corporate structure here and they are learning to work within that," said the professor before he went off to tighten some wires that had come loose on Vader.
Many of the students seemed to like the idea of building robots.
Sapp said that he was interested in building robots as a career.
"I'm interested in the interface between robots and humans," he said. Later, out of earshot of his competitors, he was willing to share the secret of Mr. Sparkle's success.
"The trick is to add a little bit of randomness to the program," said Sapp, meaning that Mr. Sparkle would move backwards and adjust the angle that it would move forwards randomly every time it encountered something in its way. "That's how you keep it from getting stuck."