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Gearing up for the robot rodeo.

The names of the diminutive, mobile robots told significant parts of the story: Sleepless in Washington, Insomnia, Not Yet, Pieces, Flimbot, Lemon, Snowball's Chance, and more. Assembled from LEGO parts and programmed in just three days (and nights), these remarkable machines competed in two events that required them to navigate around obstacles -- in one case, to find a towering coffee pot, then push or pull it toward an image of a giant mug painted on the enclosure's floor; in the other, to escape from a room and reach an infrared beacon.

Organized by David Miller, Lynn Andrea Stein, and their co-workers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the competition attracted more than 25 teams from colleges, various companies, and other institutions. All the participants attended a tutorial on the first day to learn the basics of building a robot from LEGO components -- building blocks, gears, wheels, motors, simple sensors, a microprocessor unit, and a battery-operated power supply. They also learned a computer language known as Interactive C, which was used to program the robot's microprocessor.

From then on, it was a race against the clock to build the machines and program their movements for one or both of the tasks in the contest. Each team had its own strategy. Philip Fong and his group from the University of Waterloo in Ontario, who built Sleepless in Washington, went for speed. Though their robot used a mast-mounted infrared sensor that was fixed in place, the robot could turn itself quickly enough to lock onto its target. "This was completely new to us," Fong says. "We had lots of trouble with the hardware, and we didn't have enough time." Indeed, most participants were so busy with their robots they found little time to sample the conference's other offerings.

In both events, the robots competed in pairs, racing for the same goal. Once started, the robots were on their own, and if anything went wrong, their creators could only groan helplessly as the machines crashed repeatedly into barriers or twirled endlessly in futile searches for an escape. Sometimes, the pesky automatons got in each other's way. "The fact that the robots operated at all is amazing," Miller remarks.

Deathstar 2000, built by William W. Cohen and colleagues in the Artificial Intelligence Principles Research Department at AT&T Bell Laboratories in Murry Hill, N.J., won the "Escape From the Office" event. The team attributed its victory to keeping everything as simple as possible and to "rapid prototyping." In other words, an early version of the robot was running around much sooner than most of its competitors. This gave the team extra time to test, tweak, and debug the machine before the test courses became too crowded. Nonetheless, Deathstar 2000 got a real scare in the semifinals from Lemon, built by Ying Gu, Frank Wang, and Shilin Wang, undergraduate students at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va.

Not Yet, assembled by Linda J.F. Williams and colleagues from Mitre Corp. in Houston, won the coffee-pot event. As in several other designs, ingenious engineering - including the incorporation of a remarkably effective magnetic gripper -- made up for deficiencies in the software.

The competition served as a way of giving researchers involved in artificial intelligence a chance to test their knowledge and theories on a real-world problem and gain practical experience. "You can't hide anything here," one participant noted.
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Title Annotation:Eleventh National Conference on Artificial Intelligence's mobile robot competition
Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Jul 24, 1993
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