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January 1993

Students at CRPC Affiliated Site at Maryland Build Robots for Final Exam

James Hendler, one of the researchers at the CRPC's University of Maryland affiliated site (see article "CRPC Announces University of Maryland as First Affiliated Site"), has created the university's first annual "Mobile Robot Competition." Eighteen undergraduate students from his artificial intelligence and robotics course entered the competition as their final examination for the Fall 1993 semester. The competition received extensive local newspaper and television coverage.

Hendler got the idea for the competition from a similar class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Hendler bought the robot kits from MIT and incorporated them into the class. "It's a great way to teach a lot about computer programming and robotics," he said. He has even considered bringing the competition to the high school level.

In teams of two or three, the students used computer chips, Lego blocks, camera motors, rubber wheels, drive chains, sensors, and other components to build robots that competed in a capture-the-flag competition. They also had to write a computer program instructing the robot how to feel its way out of a walled corral and then locate and snatch a beacon that served as the flag.

For many of the entries, this was not an easy task. The competition really highlighted some of the challenges that artificial intelligence presents to scientists and engineers. "The programs have to be very powerful," explained Hendler. "They have to be running the motors, taking information from the sensors, and watching a clock simultaneously."

Just getting the robots ready for the competition was tough: seven teams withdrew their entries before the bell because of technical problems. Once at the competition, some robots didn't perform as expected. One robot went into the competition intact but developed a habit of running up against the corral and waiting for instructions. Another robot worked fine in the lab, but failed to work in the competition because the lighting from TV camera crews covering the event overloaded the robot's lighting sensors.

The winner of the competition was "The Fox," a speedy, reliable robot that, surprisingly enough, "uses very simple things very consistently in the finding the beacon," noted Kyle Campbell, a collaborator on the project. His partner Narin Suphasindhu said, "once it worked, we didn't change it." Campbell noted how robots bring computer science to a whole new level. "So many times, computer theory tends to be abstract...With a robot, you can see your code come to life."

Despite technical glitches and unpredictable performances, Hendler gave all the students in his class an A for all the work that they did. "As a professor, the amount of work and enthusiasm we got out of the project was just wonderful for me to see. They duly deserve all the credit they'll receive."

Sources: Frank Roylance, Baltimore Sun, Scott Alwin, Prince George's Journal; Laura Outerbridge, Washington Times

At the University of Maryland's first annual "Mobile Robot Competition," senior Claude Correll examines "Rickshaw," his team's robot, which placed third in the event. The University of Maryland is the CRPC's first affiliated site.

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