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At Caltech, robots rule seas -- er, pond -- in annual competition

March 9, 2012 | 12:24 pm

Caltech robots

It was robot vs. robot in the battle for the Millikan Islands at Caltech, where ping pong balls were as good as gold and computer chips, wires, plastic cups and motherboards ruled the day.

Six teams of mechanical engineers on Thursday steered their robotic ships and land cargo vessels -- all carrying payloads of ping pong balls -- across Millikan Pond in the school's 27th annual robot competition.

More than 300 people watched the "The Conquest of Millikan Islands," in which the goal was to deposit the balls for points. The robots were designed and built by Caltech undergraduate students.

In the double-elimination tournament, teams had five minutes to steer their robots to collect ping pong balls from dispensers and to use a second robot to enter the water and deposit the balls on the "islands."

The biggest prize was awarded for reaching the island called the "Autonomous Beacon." To get battery-operated robots there, human controllers had to relinquish wireless command and let the robot brain — called an arduino —navigate underneath a bridge and reach the target alone.

"This is one class project all mechanical engineering students are excited about," said Kent Koyanagi, whose team, Nameless, took third place.

Each team of four or five students controlled one land unit and two ships, and each team had a budget of $1,200 to build its robots.

Some land units tipped over into the water, but students used hair dryers and kitchen napkins to save them.

This year's winner was Robotics Anonymous, but none of the engineering students lost sight of the lessons behind the competition.

"The most important thing out of being an engineer is to be able to solve real-life problems as we apply these concepts," said Jacinto Dominguez, whose command of a red cargo ship earned his team, Dim Sum 41, second place.


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Photo: Jacinto Dominguez of team Dim Sum 41 pulls one of the team's robots from the water. Credit: Glenn Koenig/ Los Angeles Times