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Robots Make a Big Splash in Annual Engineering Competition

On any typical day, Millikan Pond is not an exciting place to be. Tuesday, March 12, was not a typical day.

Instead of a serene reflecting pool occasionally populated by a wayward duck, the pond transformed into an aquatic arena where amphibious robots duked it out in Caltech's annual ME72 design competition. The competition serves as the final exam for the ME72 Engineering Design Laboratory course, which is taught by Michael Mello (PhD '12), a lecturer and research scientist in the mechanical and civil engineering department and the Division of Engineering and Applied Science.

The event challenged four student teams to build three robots each. The robots had to be capable of traversing both land and water and collecting floating balls. Most of all, they needed to be durable, because although the competition does not ask the robots to battle each other, it can get rough on the field of play.

So, for the past several months, students in the class toiled away in the Jim Hall Design and Prototyping Lab, designing, machining, testing, and tweaking until they had three of the most pond-worthy crafts they could devise.

A time lapse showing students working on their robots in the Caltech machine shop

When the big day finally arrived, the four teams, Pirates of the Millikean, Finding Waboba, Undescided, and Misteltein, gathered around the pond in front of a crowd of onlookers and tested their robots' mettle.

Bystanders gather to watch the 2019 ME72 competition

Round by round, the bots splashed and crashed around the pond, greedily grabbing colorful floating balls and carrying them to the aquatic equivalents of football's end zones. If they were agile enough to deliver the balls into floating goals, their teams earned even more points.

Robots scramble to collect floating balls

Sometimes, like children getting banged up while roughhousing in the pool, the robots needed an adult to step in.

A TA for ME72 pulls a malfunctioning robot out of Millikan pond

And there were repairs.

A student team repairs the robot they built for ME72

Lots …

A student team repairs the robot they built for the ME72 competition

…and lots …

A student team repairs a robot they built for the ME72 competition

…of repairs.

A student repairs a part of a robot his team built for the ME72 competition

In the end, team Mistletein, whose bots Horse and Liquor made abundant and effective use of chicken wire, emerged as the victors.

A robot named horse traverses the water

A robot named liquor traverses Millikan Pond

Team Misteltein poses with their trophies

But truly, on this day, everyone was a winner.

The entire 2019 ME72 class gathers on the bridge over Millikan Pond for a group photo

Written by Emily Velasco

Emily Velasco