PITTSBURGH- More than a dozen teams of Carnegie Mellon University students from engineering, robotics and computer science are fine tuning the autonomous mini robots they've built to compete at Noon, Friday, April 14, in the university's annual Mobot Slalom race, which will net the winner a $1,000 grand prize.
The robots must navigate a sinuous, 250-foot-long, two-inch-wide downhill course painted into the bumpy sidewalk beside Wean Hall on the university campus. The task is to autonomously follow the course and pass through 14 wicket-style gates, each 18 inches square, in sequence, before reaching the finish line, all within five minutes.
While a single white line guides the robots through the first eight wickets, they must correctly negotiate splits in the path to successfully pass through the last six gates.
The robots are scored on the number of gates they successfully navigate and how long it takes to pass through them. Contestants scouting the course won't learn where the gates will be placed until 48 hours before the competition. In the competition's six-year history, last year was the first time any robot made it to the finish line in the required time. "This is a challenging project," says faculty adviser Benjamin Brown, a project scientist in the university's Robotics Institute. "The problem is sensing and control. There's the mechanical aspect, the steering aspect, the sensors and the intelligence that has to be pre-programmed into the robot."
Although the contest was created primarily for undergraduates, it has generated so much interest that an Open Class Prize was added for graduate students and other non-undergraduates associated with the university. In addition to the grand prize, there is a $500 second prize, $250 third prize, the $250 Open Class Prize and $100 "judge's choice" for an innovative entry that may do unusual things to get through the course.
The kickoff for the Mobot race began last November with an open house to acquaint students about the competition. There are six advisers, including faculty, staff and graduate students, some of whom have competed themselves, who discussed the problems and answered questions. A kit and instructions are available to get people started, but its not adequate for competing successfully, says Brown.
"We hope people will take the kit and modify it," he says. "All of the intelligence has to be on the machine. You have to appreciate the subtleties of sensing and electronics to do this well." A preview of the event was held April 6 so contestants could test their robots on the course.
The Mobot competition is the newest aspect of the university's annual Spring Carnival, which has taken place every year since 1920. A highlight of Carnival has always been the buggy or pushmobile races for which students build small, low, wheeled vehicles pushed by one person while another steers from inside. The Mobot competition is seen as an alternative for some of the university's more technology minded students, to let them show off some of the things they're learning in their classes.
The Mobot race is sponsored by Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science with support from Dell Computer Corp., Harris Corp., Lockheed Martin Corp., RedZone Robotics, Inc., Schlumberger and Trilogy Software, Inc..
For more information, check the Website at www.cs.cmu.edu/~mobot/.