Jul 18, 2019 | Updated: 10:03 AM EDT

MIT’s Annual 2.007 Competition Pays Homage to Apollo 11

May 14, 2019 10:12 AM EDT

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In a span of more than four hours 32 student finalists competed in MIT's 2.007's-Design and Manufacturing I course-annual robot race. The theme this year was Moonshot, a tribute to the Apollo 11 moon landing which is celebrating its 50th anniversary.

The challenge required students to operate their robots, which either moved independently or were controlled remotely, from the LEM's starting point down to the "lunar" surface to collect as many moon rocks as possible and return them up to the LEM-the centerpiece that resembled the infamous Apollo 11 spacecraft-within two minutes. Robots got more points by affixing a small flag to a hillside, spinning a wheel to "charge" the LEM's battery, and pulling a cord to essentially drop two weights-an especially complicated task that, if accomplished, would trigger the LEM to "lift off," to theatrical smoke and sound effects.

"The competition name is very apropos of the challenge that the students face because for many of them, making a robot by themselves for the first time is a moonshot," says Amos Winter, course co-instructor and associate professor of mechanical engineering at MIT.

The 2.007 competition is an annual tradition that dates back to the 70s, with the course's first instructor, Woodie Flowers, the Pappalardo Professor Emeritus of Mechanical Engineering, who developed 2.007 as one of the first hands-on, project-based undergraduate courses.

This year's challenge inspired an array of robotic approaches and designs, including a bot, appropriately named Scissorlift, that extended itself up via a scissoring mechanism to plant a flag, and a two-bot system named Lifties, including one robot that hoisted rocks up to a second robot by way of a telescopic arm.

As the night wore on, robots battled over who could dig up the most moon rocks, using a variety of designs, from grippers and grabbers to snowplow- and comb-like sweepers, and rotating flippers and flaps. Between each session, course assistants repositioned the moon rocks and cleared the game board of any remaining moon rock dust that could disrupt a robot. To argue this probable hazard, some students designed their bots with extra traction, lining their wheels with Velcro or rubber bands.

Sophomore Jessica Xu, whose spiky, rock-snatching "Cactus-bot" made it all the way to the semifinals, says that 2.007's hands-on experience has helped to steer her toward a mechanically-oriented career.

"This is my first experience ever even thinking of building a robot," Xu says. "I started the class googling, 'What are mechanisms that robots even do?' Because I wasn't even sure what the possibilities were. I came into college wanting to do something that applies to health care. Now I'm hoping to concentrate in medical devices, applying the mechanical side. I'm excited to see what it could be."

In the end, it was a powerful, motor-heavy bot named Rocky that gobbled up rocks "like Cookie Monster," as Winter reported to the crowd, that took home the prize. Rocky's designer, sophomore Sam Ubellacker, says it could have been the bot's drive train that made the difference. While most students included two motors in their drive trains, Ubellacker opted for four, in order to move twice as fast as his competitors.

"I pretty much redesigned my entire robot the week before this competition, because I realized my other one wasn't going to score any points," says Ubellacker. "I've probably worked about 100 hours this week on this robot. I'm just glad that it worked out." He credits his victory to all the professionals behind 2.007.

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