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12/01/2001 08:00:00

Caltech's annual machine competitionto be held December 6

Caltech mechanical engineering students are putting in quality tool time these days to prepare for the annual ME 72 engineering design contest, a celebrated campus event in which teams of robot rovers are pitted against each other in a test of engineering design acumen, strategy, teamwork, and sheer driving skill.

This year's contest, the 17th in the annual series, will be held at 2 p.m., Thursday, December 6, in Beckman Auditorium on the Caltech campus. The design and construction of a machine is an important requirement for the Mechanical Engineering 72 design course, and the annual event has become an eagerly anticipated campus tradition among students and faculty. The media are invited to attend and cover the event, which should last about 90 minutes.

At the beginning of the 2001 fall term, the students registering for Mechanical Engineering 72 were given a design task, a "bag of junk," and 10 weeks to design and build a machine they judged capable of performing an assigned feat during a public contest at the end of the term. The students, paired up in teams, have now finished designing, prototyping, fabricating, assembling, testing, debugging, and tuning their machines and are ready to find out which team's machines are tops.

This year's contest is somewhat different in that the machines will compete on a curved, sloping series of steps, rather than a horizontal table as in many previous years, said Erik Antonsson, a professor of mechanical engineering at Caltech who is the originator of the design contest.

"The task this year is to push as many hockey pucks as possible up to the highest sloping step possible, Antonsson said. "You get more points for putting a puck higher up the steps, but you also have to contend with a steeper slope.

"Also, for the second straight year we're using wireless power controllers, so students will control their vehicles by radio instead of by an attached umbilical cord."

Though the contest is entertaining for onlookers, Antonsson said the motivation is to teach students how to design complicated devices that can hold up—and perhaps even perform admirably—in the real world.

"Engineering is primarily the process of creating new things to solve problems," Antonsson said. "This course and contest is one attempt to provide students with a real-world opportunity to learn about the design of new things and the solution of open-ended, ill-defined problems."

The event is sponsored by Schlumberger, Allied Signal, Northrop Grumman Corp., Applied Materials, General Motors, the San Diego Foundation, idealab!, and Hewlett-Packard Company (San Diego Division).

MEDIA ACCESS: The contest is open to the news media and Caltech community. Press will have special seating in the front rows on the left side of the auditorium, and will have supervised access to the stage and student preparation room during breaks. To ensure that the hundreds of students, faculty, and staff have a clear view of the contest, we ask that the press not stand on or in front of the stage.

Contact: Robert Tindol (626) 395-3631