Friday January 17, 2003
Technique - The South's Liveliest College NewspaperFocus

Students craft robot, take on Virginia Tech in new battle of ‘bots


Steffes, Howell and Schaeffer collaborated to build a robot, which competed in a soccer-style game against a team from Virginia Tech for a new spin on the reality TV show by the Do It Yourself Network, Robot Rivals.

By Jennifer Lee Staff Writer

For those who regularly tune into shows like Junkyard Wars, Full Metal Challenge, and Monster Garage, there will soon be yet another show to look forward to-Do It Yourself Network’s Robot Rivals. This time, however, students may have additional motivation to tune in: they’ll be cheering on some of their peers.

Robot Rivals, which pits teams from different colleges against each other in building and competing robots, is scheduled to premiere in April. The first episode features a team from Virginia Tech competing against none other than a team from Georgia Tech, composed of students Kyle Howell, Daniel Schaeffer and Stephen Steffes.

When I met to talk to the three, my first question to them, of course, was whether they won.

“Are we allowed to say that?” Schaeffer wondered.

“We didn’t sign anything,” said Howell.

“Yes we did, we signed all sorts of stuff!” Steffes said.

“Yeah,” Howell countered, “But none of them said we couldn’t say what happened.”

“Oh really?” said Steffes. “Eh, I didn’t read any of it.”

Laughter ensued.

When these good sports finally got around to answering my initial question, Howell said, “No, we didn’t win. We sucked, actually.”

Well, they may have lost, but in Steffes’s words, “We sucked with style.” Also, they explained, losing wasn’t entirely their fault. “We were the first real show, and there were a lot of things that went wrong: they didn’t have a lot of materials, they just weren’t prepared,” said Steffes.

As a result, the producers have invited the Georgia Tech team to come back later in the season to do another episode. “The producer came over and apologized to us after the thing, and he assured us that even though there are all these schools on the waiting list, they’re ‘definitely going to have Georgia Tech back since there were extenuating circumstances,'” said Howell.

At the beginning of last semester, the production company contacted Tucker Balch, a professor with the College of Computing, who relayed their interest to Dr. Ebert-Uphoff, a mechanical engineering professor who is the advisor of the RoboJackets. Initially, there was some difficulty deciding whether or not Georgia Tech would send a team, and then, deciding who would go. “A lot of the RoboJackets are ME, but a lot of people were concerned with going on and representing Tech on a television show,” said Schaeffer, a fourth-year CS major who, along with Steffes, a grad student in Aerospace Engineering, were the two RoboJackets who volunteered to go.

“We, however, have no shame,” said Howell.

The decision to go actually wasn’t made until mid-October. “Because of that, we weren’t really given much notice-we really had to hurry and get the forms filled out,” said Schaeffer. Schaeffer, who is also involved with the IEEE Robotics team, enlisted Howell, a fifth-year Computer Engineering major, as the third team member.

“We met once or twice beforehand,” said Schaeffer, “and that was it.”

The filming was done the week before Thanksgiving break. The four members of the team drove up to Knoxville, TN the night before the shooting was going to take place, were on the set from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. the next day, and then returned home the next morning.

The rules, as well as a parts list, were sent to the team about a week beforehand. “That was kind of our downfall,” said Howell. “We... came up with a bunch of ideas that used those parts, and... had a pretty good idea going into it what we wanted to do.” However, each team was also given an industry advisor, who was supposed to be an expert. “In our case, he kinda decided what we were going to do,” said Howell.

Also, despite the fact that both teams had an entire stocked lab of motors, remote control devices, and other parts, they had a few problems with materials, as well. Some of the cables they were given didn’t work. Also, one of the show’s “catches” was that each team was given a household object they had to incorporate into their robot-and for this episode, it was a old-fashioned sewing machine. The Virginia Tech team were able to incorporate their machine into the body of their robot, but because of difficulties disassembling their sewing machine, Howell, Schaeffer and Steffes had to resort to using theirs as a bumper. “We couldn’t get the top off to look at the gears inside,” explains Howell.

“I took an impact wrench to it, but it wouldn’t come out! Theirs came right apart,” claims Schaeffer.

Also, “we had a little trouble finding stuff we needed,” said Howell. “I spent half my time running around looking for stuff,” added Schaeffer.

And, of course, the guys weren’t used to being on TV. “They were definitely making a TV show,” said Howell. “We would already have a design ready, but they had to film us designing the robot, so we had a little table, and they got all the camera people over there, and they took shots of us drawing stuff and having discussions about what we should and shouldn’t do. It really threw off our rhythm.”

“There were lots of things: you can’t be drilling on one side of the lab while they’re taping on the other side, so they’d be like, ‘Okay, quiet on the set,’ and we’d have to stop work.”

“They didn’t warn us enough that, yes, this was a TV show,” said Schaeffer.

“The VT team had actually been in the pilot episode, so they already knew how it would be,” said Howell.

At the end of the day, the set was prepared for the final showdown between the remote-controlled robots in the show’s version of a game of soccer. “[The robots] had to pick up a ball, and shoot it at a net. There was no defense, we couldn’t hit the other robot and we had to shoot one ball at a time,” said Steffes.

“I can’t wait to see what the final showdown looks like in the actual TV show. I think it was actually supposed to be three minutes, go all out and whoever comes up with the most goals wins,” said Howell. “And, boy, how long did it actually take? Like, two hours?”

“Half the time the robots weren’t actually running,” laughed Schaeffer.

“We ran for like, a minute and a half,” Howell said, “and then one of the robots ran out of batteries.” The teams had to wait while the robot charged up, while the crew made sure that everything was just like it was before the breakdown occurred.

Despite everything that went wrong, the three still laugh about the experience.

“It’ll be good to see the show,” said Howell. “I can’t wait. They have to make a story and a plot line, and I just know they’re going to paint us as the team of conflict.”

“As long as they don’t paint us as stupid,” said Schaeffer jokingly.

“They’ve got a couple lines in there,” said Howell, “where we started to break down a little bit when things weren’t going the way they were supposed to. The camera guys would come on and be like, ‘Uh oh, it looks like there’s a little bit of trouble on the Georgia Tech team!'”

Schaeffer added, “They came in and did a segment on how we weren’t going to finish our robot,” and we worried.

The three all conclude, however, that it was a good experience. “I’ve forgotten all the frustrating parts,” Howell admitted. And when they do return in the summer to do it again, all three agree that next time, they’ll definitely kick some robot butt.