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11/26/2002 08:00:00

Caltech Students to Clash--Robotically

Gears will grind, shafts will spin, and who-knows-what the slat from a Venetian blind will do as undergraduates from the California Institute of Technology attempt to "bag the flag" in Caltech's 18th annual Engineering Design Contest.

The competition between machines, hand-built by undergraduates, will take place at 2 p.m. December 5 in Beckman Auditorium, and is open to the Caltech community. Due to limited seating and the expected large campus turnout, the general public is not invited for this event. The media, however, are invited to attend and cover the event, which should last about 90 minutes.

The contest, which indeed is usually observed by a packed crowd of somewhat-raucous students, is the culmination of a quarter's worth of hard work for the 24 juniors and seniors enrolled in this year's Mechanical Engineering 72 class. On October 1 each student was presented with a so-called "bag of junk"--motors, gears, springs, screws, bearings, and yes, go figure, a slat from a Venetian blind--to use in assembling their machines. At the same time, they were presented with the details of this year's contest: In teams of two, they must design and build separate devices that will work with their partner's device to remove a 10-inch-tall flag from its base. One of the gadgets must then transport the flag across the center line of a six-and-a-half foot diameter arena and plant the flag in their opponent's base, thus "bagging" the flag. The teams have 44 seconds to do it; the first team to plant the flag wins.

The course was originated by Caltech's Erik Antonsson, a professor of mechanical engineering and the chief technologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. The course is being taught by instructors Dr. Maria Yang and Dr. Curtis Collins. In the course's introduction, they warn the students that "your moment of glory (on stage) is only made possible by the expenditure of many hours of planning, designing, building, testing, failing, repairing, rebuilding, modifying (crying, laughing, screaming, chuckling, wailing, cheering, sweating. . .)." All together, the students are expected to put in 150 hours of work during the ten-week term on the design, fabrication, testing, and fine-tuning of their device.

While the annual contest is a highlight of the Caltech academic year for students and faculty alike, the object, of course, is to learn something about designing, under deadline, for the real world.

"Caltech students have a well-earned reputation for being able to solve just about any problem presented to them, and this course pushes those abilities to the limit," says Yang. "Students not only generate concepts and design solutions, but they get some serious hands-on experience building and testing, building and testing, and then building and testing some more."

The event is sponsored by Applied Materials, BSST a subsidiary of Amerigon, Dr. David and Mrs. Barbara Groce, Honeywell, idealab!, Mabuchi Motor Co., Northrop Grumman Corp., the San Diego Foundation, and the Toro Company.

MEDIA ACCESS: The contest is open to the news media. Media will have special seating in the front of the auditorium. To ensure that the hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have a clear view of the contest, we ask that the media not stand on or in front of the stage.

Note to Editors: Attached is a jpeg of third-year mechanical engineering student Salomon Trujillo and his machine.