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Battle of the 'bots – Stanford students' robots duel amid raucous cheers

Best finals project ever? Students in the Introduction to Mechatronics course build robots to do battle, sumo wrestler-style, to display their mastery of combining mechanical, electrical and computer engineering skills.

Kurt Hickman for Stanford News Service

For the 'Introduction to Mechatronics' class, each student group devises a strategy for its robot and then builds the mechanisms, designs and builds the circuits and writes the software to execute the plan.

Two robots enter, only one leaves.

This was the basic premise that students in this year's ME 210, Introduction to Mechatronics, course faced for their final project: Build a robot from scratch and send it to battle.

This year's competition was dubbed the "Fiscal Cliff Face-Off," in which student-built robots, each representing a different political party, squared off on a picnic-table size platform and tried to push each other over the edge, otherwise known as the Fiscal Cliff. If neither 'bot claimed victory after 30 seconds, a wall, called "The Sequester," began moving from one end of the platform to the other, eventually sweeping the 'bots over the cliff if there was no victor.

The contest drew a large – and rowdy – crowd. The d.school's atrium was standing room only to watch about 20 robots battle, two at a time.

Each student group devised a strategy and then built the mechanisms, designed and built the circuits and wrote the software to execute the plan.

"Most of the fundamental learning happens during class, but when they have to fix these robots over and over again, they really learn a lot about how these systems and processes integrate," said mechanical engineering Professor Tom Kenny.

Tactics varied widely. Some 'bots were built for a speedy strike and evasiveness, while others were loaded with extra weights and stronger motors for a more brutish approach. Some teams tried to confuse opponents by offsetting the robot's center of mass, causing the machine to move unpredictably when pushed. Other 'bots wedged themselves against the moving Sequester wall to try to use its pushing power to help mow down the competition.

"It's really interesting to watch the evolution of the different approaches," said Matt Ohline, a consulting associate professor who co-teaches the class.

The competition ended in a tie, in which two 'bots successfully employed a hold-your-ground approach hinted at by their names: "Filibuster Buster" and "Fili-Bust-A-Move."

Students clearly enjoyed the challenge, whether their robots made it to the finals or spun wildly before diving off the platform within seconds of being turned on.

"After this class, I feel like I can make whatever I think of," said student Kenji Bowers. "That's really powerful because just knowing mechanical engineering is not enough to make things in the world we live in now, so you have to know electronics and computer science."