The FEH Robot Competition took place at the RPAC Saturday. Credit: Courtesy of Candi Clevenger

More than 250 first-year honors engineering students gathered Saturday to watch robots they created compete in a simulated grand prix competition.

The Ohio State Department of Engineering Education presented its 24th annual Fundamentals of Engineering for Honors (FEH) Robot Competition at the RPAC. Beginning in January, the students were divided into 63 teams of four members each and were given nine weeks to design, assemble and program a fully autonomous robot vehicle no larger than 9 square inches at its base.

The teams then assembled Saturday in an gymnasium at the RPAC, where 12-square-foot courses built by students simulating racing pits awaited the robots for two rounds of competition — a round-robin and a single-elimination tournament. In each round, the robots were required to mimic a set of duties that a self-sufficient robot would complete in a real-world auto racing event to get a pit and garage prepared within two minutes.

The department said in a statement that several hundred spectators typically attend the six-hour event.

Kathy Harper, the coordinator for the engineering course associated with the competition, said the student teams were given a small budget for mechanical parts and were required to program the robots before the competition to be able to complete the tasks — without being controlled by a person.

“They’re not being controlled by joysticks. [The students] put the robot down on the course, and it’s supposed to know what to do,” said Harper, also a senior lecturer in the Department of Engineering Education. “So the students have to write some very sophisticated computer code. They have to learn how to do electrical connecting and soldering and designing. They have to learn how to work with each other.”

Tommy Carballada, a first-year in biomedical engineering and a participant on Saturday, said he greatly enjoyed the process of creating a robot with his team, which was named T.A.M.M. (an acronym comprising the first letters of the team member’s names).

“The competition has been incredibly fun because we get to see, really, an amazing robot spring up from nothing,” he said. “It was just ideas and random thoughts that we tied together into a masterful, masterful pile of screws.”

Materials the students used to construct the vehicles included sheet metal, PVC, acrylic, plywood and Erector Set components. Tasks that the students programmed the robots to complete included turning a crank to deliver fuel to the pit area, lift a wrench and bring it to the garage, release a jack to lower a race car and push certain buttons to run a diagnostic test, the department’s statement said.

Each task was worth a number of points, and whichever team had the most points after three rounds won the round-robin portion, Harper said. Then in the single-elimination tournament, four robots competed at a time, and the robots with the most points advanced to the next round. The top four teams for the round-robin and single-elimination events were recognized with awards.

Marin Musser, a first-year in mechanical engineering and one of Carballada’s teammates, said there was a great variety of designs among all the teams.

More than 250 students crowded around the RPAC to watch their robot creations fight. Credit: Courtesy of Candi Clevenger

“It’s cool how different each robot is because it’s unique to that team, and the ideas are so interesting,” she said. “There are a lot of things that I would have never thought of, but seeing them work so well, I’m surprised I didn’t.”

Harper said the idea for the grand prix scenario — in addition to the construction, design, maintenance and controlling of the physical courses — was all done by the Engineering Education Department undergraduate and graduate teaching assistants.

She added that alumni and teaching assistants who have completed in the FEH program often cite the robot competition as a valuable experience when they interview for jobs.

“Talking with our alumni, they said that a lot of what they get out of this is the overall engineering design process. They also pick up a lot of technical skills,” Harper said. “But knowing what engineering is, knowing how to plan a project, time it out, work with a budget, report it, work with other people — that is going to be with them no matter what kind of engineering, and really no matter what kind of career, they’re going to go into.”

Carballada said the team that went on to win the four-round, single-elimination tournament was team Course Campers.

In addition to recognizing the winning team, Harper said judges from numerous companies, including the Boeing Company and Microsoft, gave awards to teams for achievements in engineering, innovation and aesthetic achievement.

More than $19,000 in FEH prize scholarship money will be awarded by the end of the semester.