Rumble in the Gymnasium
Turn a corner at Caltech, and who knows what you might find?
Upon entering Brown Gymnasium on the afternoon of March 9, 2010, your first impression might have been one of giant Christmas ornaments crowding the east end of the basketball court. Festive shapes and colors predominated—from oblong pillows to near spheres, in hues of shiny silver, blue, crimson, and gold.
Motorized Mylar blimps and balloons, these floating objects made up the aerial wing of the array of gadgets constructed by students for the 2010 ME 72 competition, this year affectionately captioned "Revenge of the Hindenburg."
ME stands for mechanical engineering, and ME 72 ab is formally known as the Engineering Design Laboratory. The electromechanical devices that teams of students design for the annual showdown constitute the course's final exam (it's worth noting that performance in the contest has no bearing on the final grade). Altogether there were 29 participants, each of the nine teams comprising three to four students.
After a quarter of a century the competitions have honed themselves to, if not a fine art, then at least an ever-edgier demonstration of the art of engineering design.
The point of this year's challenge? To pick up Ping Pong balls from a dispenser, carry them to another area, and somehow deposit them in bins for a score. The tournament arena—the basketball court—boasted both a low dispenser and a high one, and low and high bins. Teams could use both ground-based devices and airborne vehicles—the blimps and balloons. Hence, the contest title.
For the design and construction of such devices, students were given a list of materials and parts they could use. These included 144 square feet of Mylar, aluminum sheets of various sizes, brass tubes of particular diameters and lengths, rubber bands, specified motor parts, model airplane propellers—and no more.
The amazing thing about the human brain is that goals and means imposed in common can lead to such an astonishing variety of implementations. Not only did the aerial vehicles vary in size and shape, but so did their ground-based counterparts.
Contraptions designed to carry balls from dispenser to scoring bin tended to be inverted, three-dimensional trapezoids, somewhat akin to coal scuttles on wheels. But some were tall and some were short. Some were made of flexible screening, others of solid metal, and at least one was fabricated from what looked like heavy paper. One carrier proved especially adept at launching balls in a high arc, aiming for the upper bin and higher point count. Another had a hammer for triggering the release of balls from the upper dispenser. Yet another worked in tandem with an attached blimp, and, finally, one blimp was itself a carrier, designed to drop balls into the upper bin from above.
The process of collecting balls from the dispensers was invariably interesting. The dispensers, whether lower or upper, had to be jarred sufficiently hard to release the cargo of balls, with the carriers, whether ground-based or airborne, properly aligned to receive them. Along with their carrier vehicles, teams had built small, fleet vehicles that could intercept and block their opponents. Most often a team would use its blocker to ram the dispenser and dispense the balls, while on a few occasions airships were used.
Interfering with opponents' devices is perfectly legit according to the rules, and like the carriers, the blockers—well, blockers, pushers, shovers, rammers, and flippers—came in several designs as well. The most popular were contraptions with a sort of ramplike shovel at the front suitable for . . . well . . . shoving and flipping.
Credit: Mike Rogers
The ME 72 tourney proceeds on the basis of double elimination—a team must lose twice to be eliminated. It took a number of rounds to distill the competition to a final three undefeated teams, which went by the names Fatal Chopsticks, Stacy and the Real Men of Genius, and Team Up. All were distinguished by their quick, efficient, robust carriers and blockers. Indeed, Team Up had built the Michael Jordan of carriers—the tall one capable of lobbing balls into the upper scoring bin.
In round five, Fatal Chopsticks took its first loss. Team Up scored big by shooting a dozen or so balls into the upper bin while successfully blocking Fatal Chopsticks' carrier from making it up the ramp to the lower bin in time to score—the carrier was seconds short of the bin as the three-minute round came to an end.
The next round saw Fatal Chopsticks hanging tough against Stacy and the Real Men of Genius. While Stacy's carrier stalled and proved unable to exit the starting area, Chopsticks' extraordinarily efficient carrier collected the balls from its dispenser and ferried them to the lower bin for a score.
Alas, while Stacy was losing to Chopsticks on the ground, a battle for aerial supremacy was raging above. Chopsticks' blimp, model-airplane propellers spinning, maneuvered to block Stacy's from flying through one of the suspended hoops—a move worth 30 points. And Chopsticks succeeded—until Stacy's vehicle with a full-forward press finally squeezed through.
The round, despite Fatal Chopsticks' success on the ground, went to Stacy and the Real Men of Genius.
And then, to the delight of the onlookers, the Chopsticks blimp went rogue! It soared toward the ceiling of the gymnasium, refusing to heed the directives of Ground Control. On came retrievers with poles and hooks, and the blimp led them a merry chase before they were finally able to bring it back down.
One rogue blimp was not enough, as it turned out. During a break to allow the two remaining contenders to carry out necessary repairs, a sort of electromechanical riot broke out as teams with no further stake in the contest decided to have a bit of impromptu fun. First a couple of blockers appeared on the floor and got into a shoving match. They were soon joined by others and by a pair of blimps battling it out overhead.
A ramming and shoving melee ensued, generally creating a Destruction Derby in miniature, or perhaps an ME 72 equivalent of the Roman arena. Balls were knocked loose from their dispensers, spilling across the floor. They were no sooner collected and replaced by increasingly frazzled support staff than they were knocked loose and scattered again.
Eventually, order was restored, and the final rounds between Stacy and Up began. To that point both were undefeated: six wins, no losses.
Both efficiently collected the balls from their respective dispensers, but then a failed move by Stacy's carrier to block Up kept Stacy away from the scoring area for most of the match. Up managed to catapult a half-dozen balls into the higher-scoring upper bin, while Stacy's carrier proved unable to climb the ramp to the lower bins. First the carrier was blocked, then its wheel jammed.
Stacy and the Real Men of Genius had their first loss.
Credit: Mike Rogers
In the final round, both teams successfully threaded their blimps through the aerial hoops, but Team Stacy saw some of their balls jarred from their carrier and were repeatedly thwarted in attempts to use the carrier as a blocker to keep Team Up's far-shooting carrier out of range of the upper bin.
Though Stacy and the Real Men ultimately maneuvered their carrier up the ramp and into the lower scoring pit, Team Up lobbed a half-dozen balls into the upper. It was close, but Team Up prevailed to become the 2010 champions.
As the crowd in the bleachers began to disperse, Professor Joel Burdick, the class's head instructor and contest emcee, made his way across the polished wood floor to where Team Up's members, Long Nguyen, Robbie Paolini, and Paul Suffoletta, were at work collecting their equipment. There he presented them with the contest trophy, one-sixth of a very large gear embedded in a heavy base and weighing more than 40 pounds.
The three winners gave renewed gloss to "all for one, one for all" as, united, they hoisted the trophy overhead.
With their victory in hand, they could look forward to joining the enthusiastic audience at next year's contest and to discovering what challenge Burdick and his colleagues would present to the students of ME 72 2010-11.
No doubt something to astonish the unwary and surprise the casual passerby . . .
Written by Michael Farquhar