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03/12/2012 07:00:00

Parachuting Eggs and Battling Boats Conquer Millikan Library

Last Thursday, the area around Millikan Library saw quite a bit of action. Parachuting eggs drifted down from the top of the nine-story building, and boats and bots battled it out in Millikan Pond.

No, they weren't more legendary Caltech pranks—they were final projects for engineering classes. The dropping eggs were for John Dabiri's fluid-mechanics class; students had to give their fragile cargo a soft landing with nothing more than a plastic bag and string and calculate how long it should take the egg to parachute to the ground. The student whose prediction was closest got to skip one question on the final exam. You also got to skip a question—and win a shiny egg trophy—if your egg survived the descent. The unforeseen breeze, however, carried some eggs a bit off course, stranding them in trees.

That afternoon was the ME72 contest. Among the hundreds of spectators was physicist Stephen Hawking, who watched the action from under the cool shade of an umbrella. In this year's challenge—"The Conquest of Millikan Islands"—teams of students had to design and build robots to retrieve 11 ping-pong balls from dispensers on the footbridge and then use a second aquatic robot to put those balls into small "islands" distributed around the pond. Then, the second robot had to enter an "autonomous zone," where remote control was forbidden; using an infrared signal beamed from an island in the autonomous zone as their guide, the bots delivered ping-pong balls all by themselves. Each team earned points for every successful delivery to the different islands.

Finally, after an afternoon of many fierce rounds, team Robotics Anonymous emerged victorious, edging out Dim Sum 41.

Written by Marcus Woo