How do you start a robotics club from scratch? Northeastern University London students found the winning formula

Students surround a robot.
Photo Courtesy of Cambridge University

LONDON—NUtron had just barely made it out of the first round, but the newly built robot made by the recently formed Northeastern University London team had a secret weapon. 

Like other robots in the Unibots competition at Cambridge University, NUtron was coded to follow a certain route, using sensors and a camera to navigate its surroundings. However, NUtron had something unique: it was built piece by piece on Northeastern’s London campus.

It was just what the team needed to give them an edge, and to add a feather to the impressive team’s cap. In just a few months, Northeastern London’s new robotics club has accomplished a lot: creating a talented robot, winning a prestigious robotics competition and developing a new way for students to connect.

“Founding this club was a way to actually get that community,” Aidan Carrier said.

How do you start a robotics club from scratch? Part of it was luck. A first-year engineering student at Northeastern London, Aidan Carrier attended the 2022 Thanksgiving dinner on campus. President Joseph E. Aoun was in attendance, and Carrier was trying to gather the courage to ask for his support of an idea: a new robotics club. 

“I wanted to approach him, but I didn’t know how,” Carrier said.

As it turns out, he didn’t have to. As Carrier was enjoying his meal, “President Aoun tapped me on the back,” he said. 

When Carrier told him about his idea, the president said he would love to help, taking a photo of his nametag with his phone. He got Carrier in contact with Suzi Broadaway, the head of student life at Northeastern London. Carrier started the process of getting funding for the club, and met with the head of the robotics club on the Boston campus for support. He also reached out to fellow first-year Mark Yang, who became the co-president of the club. 

Both Yang and Carrier brought a breadth of experience to the organization: both were president of the robotics teams at their respective high schools. Carrier did summer programs in robotics as well, including working on an autonomous underwater vehicle. Yang, meanwhile, led his high school team to the robotics world championships—not once, but twice. First-year students Andrew Schwebel and Justin Steenstra rounded out the group.

Once they had a club, one of the first things Carrier and Yang did as co-presidents was set a goal.

“We wanted to have a purpose,” Carrier said. 

The team decided that, with only a semester remaining of their time in London, they should build their own robot and sign up for a competition. They found one of the few robotics competitions in the United Kingdom—a student-run contest at Cambridge University called Unibots—and signed up. 

When they arrived in Cambridge on March 25, the scene was intimidating. As Yang noted, they were the first global university to participate in the competition. There were 14 other teams, including Cambridge University and King’s College London.  

“A lot of the other robots we saw were amazing. In some ways I thought that some of them were more advanced than ours,” Carrier said. “There’s one robot that literally zooms across the field. … It was super cool.”

They all had a challenging task ahead of them. The competition required the teams’ robots to gather as many tennis balls and ping pong balls as possible during a 180-second period and place them into their team’s scoring zone. Four robots competed against each other at a time, sharing a playing field. No remote controlling was allowed—the robots had to be completely autonomous. 

In the first round, 11 of the competitors were eliminated, and the other four advanced to a knockout round where the winner was chosen. 

Considering what they were up against, the Northeastern team decided to go in with a simple goal—to not come in last. Much to their surprise, their robot NUtron—named for Northeastern University—made it past the first round, just barely, by getting the fourth-highest score. 

The team had a marked advantage thanks to Northeastern. According to Yang, the team 3D-designed the robot in house; everything was made at Northeastern’s Devon House except for the electronics, “which definitely gives us a lot of advantage because a lot of other robots were pre-built,” he said. 

The robustness of the design pulled them through, Yang said, as well as their strategy. Robots that collided with another team’s machine were penalized by 10 seconds. But, Yang said, “we noticed that the benefits of colliding with another robot actually outweighed the risk. And that actually helped us.”

They won the competition, and a £1,000 cash prize, which is about $1,250, against some of the top teams in the U.K.

For Carrier and Yang, it was a big victory. It was also their last competition in the U.K. Neither Carrier nor Yang will be able to continue the club themselves, as they’re moving back to Boston at the end of April. But they hope that what they’ve done will be a blueprint for other students to follow. They hope to publish information on how they built the robot for the next team; that way, it will be easier for students to get started than when Carrier created the club. 

Carrier and Yang, who are thankful to those who helped them along the way—like faculty members, Suzi Broadaway, the student union of London and others—hope the club can continue to be a source of community for robotics enthusiasts on the London campus.

As for the co-presidents, both Carrier and Yang want to join the robotics team in Boston, and are interested in doing research and starting their own tech companies. 

Whatever they end up doing, robotics will be at the center. 

“Robotics is the reason why I wanted to do engineering as a major,” said Yang. At one point, he wanted to be an artist, he said, “but after joining a robotics club, it changed my view of the world.” 

As for Carrier, “I love robotics because it’s the ability to create things from almost nothing,” he said. “I want to change the world and make a difference.”