University team gears up for Midwestern Robotic Design Competition

By Ashley Rayan, Staff Writer

Every year, a team of students from the University creates a robot able to complete mundane tasks, such as navigating through tunnels, unlocking doors and dropping balls into baskets. Though this may sound simple, creating such a robot requires hours of research and assemblage from a dedicated team.

In March, teams of six from colleges across the nation converge at the University of Illinois to show off their talents through carefully created robots at the Midwestern Robotics Design Competition.

MRDC, held in the Kenney Gym Annex, is intentionally planned to coincide with the Engineering Open House weekend, where hundreds of high school and middle school students come to see exhibits showcasing the work of Illinois’ engineering students.

According to the rules from the 2017 MRDC, the competition contains four visually obscured tunnels, four swing doors, four locks, four keys and three soccer balls. Each match consists of at least four robots competing to score soccer balls in a hidden scoring bin.

Teams are awarded points according to how much of the course they complete, among other things. Robots that use special skills while scoring, such as flying or autonomy, have their score multiplied by two or four, respectively. 

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The first day of the competition allows the teams to get a feel of the course, and during the second day each team is given an opportunity to allow their robot to complete the course to score points.

Last year 31 teams competed in the tournament, coming from mostly midwestern schools such as Valparaiso University, Illinois Institute of Technology and Northwestern University. Most schools send multiple teams to compete, each team consisting of six members.

Often it takes a team of more people to construct, but only the six are allowed on the competition. This makes the competition even more stressful, as team members shout instructions to the six in control of the robot.

“This year we are expecting around the same number of teams. It would be great to add a few more, maybe one or two teams,” Michael Gale, sophomore in Engineering and director of the MRDC at Illinois, said.

The competition is entirely student run through the RSO. Before the series each year, the committee of students meet to establish rules and guidelines and create the course for the competition that year.

“Right now we are creating the course that the teams will be competing on in March. Then, once we have the course and the tasks that the robots will be attempting to compete. We will be able to give that information to the teams, and they can use it to program their robots,” Gale said.

The committee isn’t just for engineers. It’s open to students of all backgrounds with any interest in robotics.

“We have mostly engineers, but we are open to anyone who would like to join. Currently we have mostly underclassmen, but we do have a few upperclassmen and graduate students on the committee as well,” said Ted Stelling, co-director of the MRDC.

The tournament started through a generous donation from Jerry Sanders, the co-founder of the multinational semiconductor company Advanced Micro Devices. It was originally named after him, called the AMD Jerry Sanders Creative Design Competition, but the name was later changed to reflect new funding.

“Jerry Sanders was an alumni of our engineering program and after he started his own company he came back with $25,000 and asked to start a robotics competition here at the school. He continued to fund us until he wasn’t able to anymore, due to the recession and things like that,” Stelling said.

The MRDC is a long standing tradition for the engineering program, meant to showcase the talents of students as well as the way that robotics technology has improved throughout the years. The group also aims to introduce potential engineering students to the more competitive side of engineering.

“This is the 31st year of our organization holding this competition, although the technology that goes along with it has changed a lot over the years,” Stelling said.

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