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Student-Designed Robots Compete for Glory and Prizes May 16

Twelve autonomous robots will go head-to-head as their student designers vie for a $3,000 first prize at the 18th Annual Undergraduate Design Competition.

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May 13, 2009 | by Megan Fellman
EVANSTON, Ill. --- Twelve autonomous robots will go head-to-head Saturday, May 16, as their student designers vie for a $3,000 first prize at the 18th Annual Undergraduate Design Competition at the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University.

Free and open to the public, this year's competition, called "NUball," will start at noon at the Ford Motor Company Engineering Design Center, 2133 Sheridan Road, on the Evanston campus. (A free pizza lunch will be provided.)

Teams of Northwestern undergraduates representing a variety of engineering fields have spent six months designing, building and programming autonomous robots using various parts, including microprocessors, actuators, motors, gears and electronic sensors. Remote control is not permitted, though teams may reprogram robots as often as desired.

Each robot will compete against two other robots in a hexagon-shaped arena. Each robot will have a designated area and color, and teams will strive to get balls of their own color out of the hexagon arena (worth three points) while preventing balls from remaining in their designated area. (Five points are subtracted for each ball of any color that remains in their area.) Robots will use arms, scoops and vacuums in their battle of the balls. After a two-minute bout, the team with the most points will advance.

An announcer will call the competition as fans cheer on the robots. Students will have shirts with team names such "Robocats" and "Caesar's Funk Voyage" while referees will wear black-and-white stripes. Just like NCAA tournaments, brackets will show the best teams moving toward the final showdown.

(VIDEO: For a taste of the action, view the 2007 competition on Northwestern's YouTube site.)

The design competition attracts hundreds of spectators every year who enjoy the display of high technology and student ingenuity as well as food and rock music.

The event is expected to conclude around 3 p.m. with an awards ceremony. Cash prizes will be awarded to the top three teams: $3,000 for first place, $2,000 for second and $1,000 for third.

One team also will be honored with the design competition's annual Myke Minbiole Elegant Engineering Award. McCormick alumnus Minbiole, who had been working as an engineer at Northrop Grumman, was killed in a hit-and-run collision in April 2007. Engineers from Northrop Grumman who worked with him will choose this year's award winner.

"The Design Competition underscores the school's emphasis on design, team projects, project management and the importance of programming and mechanism design in nearly everything," said Michael Peshkin, professor of mechanical engineering and faculty adviser.

Industry sponsors include Ford Motor Company, DMC Engineering, Northrop Grumman, Deloitte and Kinea Design.

More information on the 2009 Design Competition is available online or from Michael Peshkin at peshkin@northwestern.edu.