‘Sumo robots’ do battle

The tension mounted Friday morning as Ares Gamma and Big White Thing prepared to face off as the final two autonomous “sumo-wrestling robots” remaining in a friendly competition that was part of a pilot course for first-year engineering students.

Ares Gamma, its sleek design highlighted by “tusks” made from two Erector Set pieces and meant to lift its opponents, had already defeated its opponent once in the double-elimination competition. But Big White Thing—which was wrapped completely in white duct tape—swept its way through the consolation bracket to get a shot at redemption. And the winner was … watch the video below to find out.

Competitions involving sumo-wrestling robots—in which the goal is for one robot to push the other outside the ring—take place worldwide. About 20 teams of two students each participated in Northeastern's competition on Friday, which was part of a pilot course in the College of Engineering called Cornerstones of Engineering taught by Susan Freeman, a senior academic specialist and director of the college's first-year engineering program. The course, which is new this fall, was designed to combine elements of design and programming.

“The idea is to give students hands-on experience with real projects that force them to problem-solve and face a variety of engineering challenges,” Freeman said. “Real-world engineering is very complex, and it’s a great opportunity for students to do something this close to that in their first semester.”

The competition was held in a Snell Engineering classroom. In each match, the object was simple: to win, one robot had to push at least one-third of its competitor’s body outside the circular ring, which was marked by a white line. All the robots were equipped with sensors that would recognize the white line and reverse the robots to keep them in bounds.

Each team was given the metal frame, circuit board, wheels, motors, and sensors to build the base of their robots. From there, they had access to a variety of other materials—from Erector Set pieces to duct tape to wooden dowels—they could also use in hopes of gaining a competitive advantage, as long as those extra pieces didn’t add more than two inches on either side and six inches on either end.

Students spent several weeks building their robots. The previous Friday they faced off in a competition with the base of their robots only. But this past Friday served as the final competition in which the student teams unveiled their new-and-improved robots with add-ons. Some teams even took it a step further, with one team’s robot featuring a Batman symbol and another hoisting a pirate flag.

For their part, the students were thrilled to build on their passion for robotics in a fun and educational way. Ares Gamma team member Aiden Wolfe, E’19, noted that he participated in many robotics events in high school but said he learned a lot from this project’s complicated wiring system. From a strategy perspective, the team upgraded its robot to feature more armor around its sensors than it had in the first competition.

Like many of the students, Wil Medeiros, E’19, one half of team Big White Thing, was very proud of his finished product. One of the biggest challenges his team faced was reconstructing the entire electrical board to ensure that all the sensors worked properly.

“It’s been very rewarding,” Medeiros said of the experience, which he added has further reinforced his decision to pursue an engineering degree.