Chicago team triumphs in tense hoops game

URBANA – It was a little bit boxing, a little bit "Survivor," and a whole lot of engineering know-how.

Tensions ran high at the annual AMD W.J. "Jerry" Sanders Design Contest Saturday at the University of Illinois Engineering Open House, where robots battled to collect frisbees and hoops in a two-level arena surrounded by frenetic fans.

The Ares robot created by the UI Chicago's 25-member Engineering Design Team took first place, besting other squads from the UI's Urbana campus, Iowa State University and the Illinois Institute of Technology, among others.

The UI Chicago team entered four robots in the competition and three made it to the quarterfinals, as did three from the Urbana campus.

That's when things got dicey. In the quarterfinal round, three other teams worked together to knock out one of the UI Chicago entries, ala "Survivor," said UI student Alex Lorch, co-director of the contest.

"The other teams decided they were going to gang up on them," he said.

That didn't sit well with the UI Chicago crowd, who complained that the contest was supposed to be about speed and points, not fighting.

Judges put a stop to it in the finals after two entries collided and locked together in a standoff. "No bumping, no blocking," Lorch informed the contestants.

"It's a lot of fun. Everyone just gets really competitive," explained UI Chicago senior Fernando Garcia, adviser to his school's team.

"Just like any other sports competition," added contest adviser Dan Mast.

The two-day competition started Friday with 17 teams competing in nine rounds, four robots at a time. Eight were chosen for the quarterfinals based on point totals, then re-seeded for the final rounds.

The object of the game was to get frisbees or hoops out of a stack and deposit them on the correct box or hook, piling up as many points as possible in 10 minutes. The robots – which resembled remote-controlled go-carts with metal arms – had to maneuver up and down ramps and under bridges to get to their goals.

For added strategy, the robots could multiply their points by 1.5 if they put a frisbee in a "multiplier box."

Ares, the winning robot, capitalized on that strategy. In the final, controller Dan Bellarmino went straight for the multiplier box, then piled up quick points. The speedy Ares easily defeated "Bender," the Iowa State entry.

To cover all the bases, the UI Chicago team designed Ares to fetch frisbees exclusively, two robots to focus on hoops, and a fourth that could do both, said UI Chicago senior Steve Kearney, the team's vice president.

The motivation to beat its downstate sister school was high. Asked if the two schools are rivals, Garcia and fellow adviser Chris Kaczor answered together, "Definitely."

"I wouldn't call it friendly," added team president Nick Novak, a UI Chicago senior.

The Chicago team finished first two years ago and also won most innovative design for its "autonomous" robot, which could perform tasks without being guided. The engineers started brainstorming about this year's entries in the fall and has been working on the robots since early January.

"Most of us are putting in over 20 hours a week," plus schoolwork, Novak said.

Third place went to "Alexei's Avengers," a two-man team from the UI's Urbana campus, while the UI Chicago's "Thor" robot took fourth.

Matt Erickson, a political science major, designed the Alexei robot with housemate and fellow senior Steve Ward. They've been a team for five years.

"Our workshop is in the basement. It's a hobby," said Erickson, a political science major. "It's awfully expensive, but it's fun."

He was happy with the third-place finish.

"We haven't let out smoke, we haven't let out sparks, we haven't had any major failures. We're the only UIUC team to break the finals," he noted.

The electrical engineering group's entry, oddly enough, had an electrical failure when a switch got jostled.

The contest ended with the demolition round, including one robot equipped with a pneumatic hammer designed to smash competitors.

It's "a free-for-all until they break," Lorch said cheerfully. "Basically, it's last robot standing."

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