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MIT students gear up for 'Star Wars'-themed robot competition

"May the torque be with you" puts student-made robots to the test.
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Whether or not they’re Star Wars fans, undergrads in MIT’s Department of Mechanical Engineering are hoping the force is with them this week as they gear up for the school’s annual robot competition.

Undergrads in a design and manufacturing engineering class will put their homemade robots to the test on Thursday

“It’s incredibly rewarding to see a machine that you’ve spent all semester on come to life,” said Tom Frejowski, the current top-seeded student in Thursday’s 2.007 Robot Competition, dubbed "May the Torque Be with You.” 

“Having a functioning robot fills me with a lot of pride,” he said, “but that pride is definitely paired with a healthy amount of humility because I know exactly what can go wrong and how my robot can fail and I’m aware of all of the challenges that I had to address during the design process.”

This year’s competition for undergrads in a design and manufacturing engineering class is Star Wars-themed, so the competition field will feature a 3-D model X-Wing with an 11-foot wingspan and four jet engines. The students’ robots are challenged to move to the engines and spin them.

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The engines are weighted, so they require a lot of torque (the measure of force that causes an object to rotate) to get them to spin. Students earn points for how much energy their robots put on the engine and the rotation speed they reach, but Frejowski said the experience working with robots is more exciting than the competition aspect.

“This class is something that the majority of mechanical engineering students look forward to,” Frejowski said. “Things like making a robot that performs only one task really well, or having a robot that does something on the board that nobody else focused on, are equally as important as scoring points for a lot of students.”

For many of the 165 students in the class, most of whom are sophomores, this is likely the first robot they’ve ever built, said MIT professor Amos Winter, who co-leads the class. In four years teaching the course, he is always surprised by what the students build, he said.

“Every year we get crazy, cool, creative insights that the students come up with and awesome robots they build that we would have never anticipated,” he said.

The 2.007 Robot Competition was started more than 40 years ago by MIT professor emeritus Woodie Flowers.

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Flowers doesn’t teach the course anymore, but he’ll be present at this year’s competition to give an "Inspiring Engineering Lecture" alongside Segway inventor Dean Kamen.

While the competition has changed a bit since the ’70s — a new theme each year brings a new competition field and challenges for the student-made robots to complete, and students now have more high-tech tools to work with — the core mission has stayed the same.

“The motto of MIT is Mens et Manus; Mind and Hand,” he said. “This class ties into that, because in lecture and written homework, students are learning engineering theory — how to size motors, how to use fasteners like screws and bolts — but then they have to turn around and literally apply it to a robot downstairs in our lab. They have to make this thing work.”

Both Winter and class co-teacher Sangbae Kim will be dressed as "Star Wars" characters for the event at the MIT Johnson Ice Rink on Thursday, May 11. The day’s events start at noon and the robot competition kicks off at 6:30 p.m.

Frejowski encouraged anyone with “even a vague interest” to check it out.

“The turnout for the competition often rivals the crowds of a lot of varsity sports here,” he said. “I was there for last year’s and it was crazy to see the genuine excitement for these robots.”

 

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