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The West Point BattleBots project and competition.


Three cadet teams at the United States Military Academy each design, budget, build, and test a middleweight, non-stomping BattleBot according to the rules of the national competition.[1] In 2003 we emphasized two aspects of this multidisciplinary, hands-on project--the importance of the final competition and project planning as a military operation. We observed three significant results of this change: 1) increased competitiveness and learning; 2) successful introduction of the Military Decision Making Process (MDMP); and 3) learning valuable leadership and teamwork lessons.


The benefits of open-ended, multidisciplinary, hands-on projects are well-documented in literature. Manseur cites some of the advantages of competition-based projects as student motivation, multidisciplinary teamwork, and synthesis of knowledge from many courses.[2] Aglan and Ali assert that hands-on experiences significantly enhance engineering curricula and enable students to better understand the physical problems and solutions that pervade engineering education.[3] Bourgeois also asserts that hands-on projects help students close the gap between theory and practical applications, promote deep-learning, and build students' self-confidence.[4]

Many large-scale engineering competitions exist today. At the undergraduate level, the Intercollegiate Ground Vehicle Competition (IGVC) combines electrical, mechanical, computer, and systems engineering within a competition that is, "... multidisciplinary, theory-based, hands-on, team implemented, outcome assessed, and based on product realization."[5] At the middle school and high school levels, the "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology: FIRST" robotics competition sponsored by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) requires student teams to build robots with the help of technicians and corporate sponsors.[6] The West Point Bridge Design Contest (WPBDC) is an Interact-based competition that attracts over 10,000 teams of high school and middle students each year.[7] The WPBDC's principal goal is for students to, "learn about engineering through a realistic, hands-on problem-solving experience."[8] As part of the academic program at the United States Military Academy(USMA), every cadet is required to successfully complete an engineering project during his/her senior year.[9] These projects are increasingly complex and realistic, requiring a multidisciplinary engineering approach for successful completion. One such project is BattleBots, which is jointly offered by the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (D/EE&CS) and the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering (D/C&ME).

Battlebots at West Point

For the capstone BattleBots Project, three cadet teams each design, budget, build, and test a middleweight, non-stomping BattleBot according to the rules of the national competition. [1] The project culminates in a BattleBots tournament and final rumble (demolition derby) at West Point between the three cadet and two faculty bots. Cadets work on their design projects early in their senior year under the supervision of advisors from both D/EE&CS and D/C&ME and present the results in an institution-wide Projects Day. Cadet familiarity with the event from the Comedy Central television show greatly increases cadet excitement for the project. In spite of this motivation advisors observed average or poor performance in the first two years the BattleBots Project was offered. In both of the first two years of BattleBots, at least one team was unable to compete in the tournament. Faculty members observed that some students were not motivated to complete a functioning BattleBot. Additionally, with little emphasis placed upon the tournament and high demands on cadets' time, teams were not motivated to compete in the end-of-year tournament. In 2003 we emphasized two aspects of the project to improve the BattleBots Project. First, we stressed the importance of the final competition. Second, the entire BattleBots planning process was revised and modeled on the military planning process to enhance cadets' development as future officers and members of the Armed Forces. Advisors devoted substantial time and resources to develop a challenging skills competition and tournament arena. Additionally, cadets prepared and presented intermediate design requirements in military format (e.g., Decision Briefings, properly formatted Memoranda, etc.); conducted rehearsals of the operation; and followed the MDMP [10], the organized problem solving process commonly used by the military.

As a result of these emphasized aspects, advisors observed three significant results. Emphasizing the competition significantly fueled cadets' natural competitiveness and noticeably improved learning. Additionally, the BattleBots Project successfully introduced the cadets to MDMP. Finally, faculty members from both departments noted several examples of cadet leadership, teamwork, and leader development throughout the BattleBots Project even though the principal purpose of the project was to provide cadets an opportunity to reinforce concepts of applied science through hands-on work. In 2003, advisors re-organized the BattleBots Project into four phases: Analysis and Preliminary Design, Fabrication and Component Testing, Testing and Rehearsal, and Competition. The following paragraphs describe each phase and the observed results of last year's emphasized aspects.

Phase One: Analysis and Preliminary Design

In the first phase of the BattleBots Project, cadet teams receive the project specifications and requirements and conduct a preliminary design and detailed analysis of the project and competition. Last year, the guidelines of the Tournament were defined and clearly presented to the teams, which ignited the cadets' competitiveness. Under the supervision of faculty advisors, BattleBot teams develop a preliminary design that includes defining the problem, developing at least three viable concept BattleBots, and identifying engineering requirements and selection criteria. BattleBot teams present the results of their preliminary design work to a committee of officers in both C&ME and EE&CS departments. These presentations are organized as military decision briefings, whereby cadets present results, compare all concept BattleBots, and recommend a concept for approval. In the 2003 BattleBots Project, advisors noticed cadet competitiveness and its effects early on--even in this first phase, rivalries between teams had already developed. Some cadets were so motivated for victory that they extensively researched existing robots, BattleBots, and components. Others spent numerous hours developing concepts and plans with technicians in both departments. This competitiveness drove the preliminary design to an unprecedented level of detailed analysis.

The Analysis and Preliminary Design Phase is analogous to many steps in the MDMP, including: an estimate of the situation; mission analysis; and course of action development, comparison, and selection. Table 1 highlights the similarities between the MDMP and the BattleBots Project. Advisors purposely provide few details about the Tournament during this phase, encouraging cadets to consider several possible terrain and enemy options and to incorporate flexibility into the plans. During the decision briefing, teams present their recommended course of action and are set to order parts, materials, and components. During the 2003 BattleBots Project, teams had already gathered intelligence and were analyzing enemy courses of action by the end of the first semester. Table 1 shows a comparison of the MDMP and BattleBots Project. See issue website At this point in the project, leaders began to emerge. Both Mechanical Engineering (ME) and Electrical Engineering (EE) sub-teams have appointed team leaders. Some of the designated leaders assume this role immediately; in other cases, another team member rises to the occasion. Last year, all of the ME and EE team leaders accepted responsibility and took charge of their team at the beginning of the project.

Phase Two: Fabrication and Component Testing

During fabrication, cadets realize the distinct differences between a hands-on project and a "paper" design; welding steel tubing and conducting lengthy dynamometer testing are a few of the tasks that set this project apart from an analysis-only project. During this period, cadet teams frequently see each other using the equipment. Friendly chiding between the teams becomes the norm. The enthusiasm and excitement about the project that was started during Phase One clearly carried into this phase. The Fabrication and Component Testing Phase is similar to course of action refinement in the MDMP. Teams produce an initial prototype that they can test and modify. A key component for success in military operations is operational security--preventing the enemy from gathering information about friendly capabilities or plan. Good operational security increases the probability of success. BattleBot teams learned operational security, sometimes painfully as plans were discovered. In 2003, Faculty advisors noted that all team leaders struggled with delegating tasks to other team members during this phase. As a result, some groups fell behind their planned timelines while leaders shouldered a large portion of the workload. To mitigate these delays, the team frequently met with their faculty advisor to review the component testing results and evaluate the project schedule. Additionally, anonymous peer evaluations within the team spurred the nonparticipating members to become more involved and encouraged the leader to delegate more of the workload.

Phase Three: Testing

Frustrated by previous poor showings at the Tournament, advisors developed a Skills Competition last year to focus cadet efforts. Now the defining event of the Testing Phase, the Skills Competition requires cadets to demonstrate a working BattleBot that meets all safety requirements and is capable of negotiating several obstacles while moving. The Skills Competition also forces teams to complete their BattleBot prior to the Tournament. Advisors use the results of the timed Skills Competition to seed BattleBots for the Tournament. Figure 1 shows the final round of the Skills Competition. See issue website Without question, this phase sparks competitiveness--friendly antagonism is the norm at the Skills Competition. The large crowd of spectators that gathers for the Skills Competition further stokes cadets' competitive fires. During the 2003 BattleBots Project, two BattleBots came to the Skills Competition with intimidating team names and ominous body paint schemes. Not to be outdone, the third team painted the back of their BattleBot with silver lightning flashes within 24 hours after the Skills Competition. Strategically planned to be held one week prior to the Tournament, the Skills Competition provides an opportunity for teams to conduct a full rehearsal on terrain similar to the Tournament and gather intelligence on enemy BattleBots.

Conducting rehearsals and gathering intelligence are key components of the MDMP. After the 2003 Skills Competition, each of the teams modified their BattleBot to improve anticipated performance against other BattleBots. Team dynamics and leadership always improve by this point in the project. Teams develop strong trust and loyalty and this is evident at the Skills Competition. It was exciting to watch the group dynamics last year during and after the 2003 Skills Competition--leaders identified tasks and corrective actions and team members immediately responded. Faculty advisors observed all leaders taking charge and making decisions before and during the Skills Competition.

Phase Four: Competition

The BattleBots Tournament, where teams conduct the equivalent of their military operation, pits BattleBots in a head-to-head, single elimination tournament. To replicate the conditions of the national competition as closely as possible, advisors build an arena of plywood. Technicians from both departments build obstacles and hazards. Three officers who are familiar with BattleBots serve as competition judges for the head-to-head matches and award points from a standardized score sheet that is similar to a boxing score card. A BattleBot can score points by inflicting damage on an opponent, demonstrating aggression, or demonstrating strategy. The bouts last three minutes unless ended early by "knockout"--a situation whereby a BattleBot is unable to continue fighting or is pushed completely out of the arena. There is a twenty-minute reconstitution period between bouts during which a team can repair a damaged or malfunctioning BattleBot in a "pit crew area." To further add to the competition, the Academy's Sound and Video .Imaging Branch films the entire Tournament and broadcasts it on the local community television channel later in the summer.

The second part of the competition phase--and usually the most fun to watch--is the Rumble: a free-for-all slugfest with all cadet-built BattleBots and two BattleBots revitalized by department technicians. The Rumble is a fight-to-the-end event that is governed by the same rules and procedures as the Tournament. At the conclusion of the Rumble, the winner is the last functioning BattleBot remaining in the arena. Figure 2 shows some of the action during the Rumble. See issue website The 2003 BattleBot Tournament was the highlight of the year for everyone involved. As a result of the emphasis on the competition, all three cadet BattleBots were ready to compete in the tournament. The excitement about the competition motivated cadets to produce BattleBots that would defeat any of the previous year's entries. Cadet learning and mastery of the various subjects were clearly demonstrated by complex discussions in the pit areas about their creations and their strategies. Faculty members and technicians observed cadets conversing about relationships among torque, speed, yield strength, voltage, and amp-hours. This is a strong demonstration of the educational benefits of the competition-based BattleBots Project.

The final project requirement, the project report, is much like a military after-action report (AAR). The report summarizes all phases and discusses lessons learned from the project. An example of a significant lesson learned by the pit crews was the importance of spare parts. A simple blown fuse almost prevented one BattleBot from competing in a follow-on match. Team dynamics and the effects of leadership were very apparent. Some pit crews were well-prepared, strongly-led, and could quickly make adjustments between matches. Well-used and rehearsed Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures (TTPs)--the standardized doctrine that the military uses to describe how people fight--even resulted in a smaller BattleBot defeating a larger and more powerful BattleBot.


Advisors agree that the 2003 BattleBots Project was the best and most meaningful in the three years that the project has been offered. One key to this success was igniting the cadets' natural tendency to compete by emphasizing the competition aspect of the project. Faculty advisors observed that the thrill of competing against a peer-built BattleBot motivated many students to excel. However, the opportunity to compete against, and even defeat, a faculty and technician built BattleBot in the Rumble inspired some to excel far beyond expectations. The fact that a cadet-built BattleBot won last year's Rumble is a strong testimony to the effectiveness of competitive learning. Another key to the success of the 2003 BattleBots Project was the emphasis of project planning as a military operation. As a result of the changes to the project's format and structure, all cadets benefited from applying problem-solving and engineering design processes that closely mirror the MDMP, preparing and presenting military-style decision briefings, and submitting properly formatted memoranda. Additionally, the EE and ME team leaders for each BattleBot enjoyed a leadership experience that was effective and developmental for future Army officers. Finally, the 2003 BattleBots Project highlighted the value of multidisciplinary teamwork in successful operations. The success of the 2003 BattleBots Project can be summarized in the following cadet responses on the end of course survey:

* "Actually got to build, test, and compete our design"

* "Allowed for creativity and imagination. Competition is always a good thing"

* "I learned a lot about engineering from problem statement to final product".


Successfully accomplishing the BattleBots Project required a true interdisciplinary team effort with major contributions from the faculty and support groups in D/EE&CS and D/C&ME, the Instructional Support Division--Sound and Video Imaging Branch, financial support from the Association of Graduates from the United States Military Academy, and of course the cadets.

The views expressed herein are those of the authors and do not purport to reflect the position of the United States Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense."



[2] Manseur, Rachid. "Hardware Competitions in Engineering Education." 30th ASEE/IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference, October 18-21, 2000, Kansas City, MO.

[3] Aglan, H., and Ali, S., "Hands-On Experiences: An Integral Part of Engineering Curriculum Reform." Journal of Engineering Education, Volume, October, 1996.

[4] Bourgeois, F., "A Hands-On Approach for Teaching Engineering Principles." Effective Course / Effective Teaching at University / Reflection on Practice / Practice for Reflection Conference, Teaching and Education Development Institute, Brisbane Australia, November 1-2, 1999.





[9] West Point web page,

[10] Field Manual Number 101-5, Staff Organization and Operations, Headquarters, Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., May, 1997.

Brian Gollsneider, United States Military Academy

Bret Van Poppel, United States Military Academy

Peter Hanlon, United States Military Academy

Lieutenant Colonel Gollsneider is an Instructor with the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, Major Van Poppel is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Civil and Mechanical Engineering, Hanlon, PhD, is an Assistant Professor with the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.
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Author:Hanlon, Peter
Publication:Academic Exchange Quarterly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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