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Design contest features robotic basketball game

Coach K would have been proud. Complete with balls, brackets, Duke fight music, two "referees" and even a Cameron Crazie, engineering students lived up to Duke's reputation for borderline obsession with basketball Wednesday night.

The competition, called March Mayhem, included 39 students from the Pratt School of Engineering and one from Trinity College. The students created 26 robots using items in build kits. Working alone or in teams of two, they designed their robots to shoot, drop, place or launch ping-pong balls into a 8" by 15" Plexiglas tube.

Even the wooden court the robots "played" on looked somewhat like the larger one in Cameron Indoor Stadium - except, instead of one orange basketball, there were 1,400 white ping-pong balls held in boxes in each of the four corners.

The robots competed in two-minute heats, with minute-long overtimes in the case of a tie. Teams could use defensive strategy, including blocking, and, in one case, dumping balls on the opponent. The robots were controlled by radio systems.

"Even though they look like toys, it requires the students to use what they learned in class," said Kenneth Hall, professor and chair of mechanical engineering and materials science. "They have to work on deadlines, with a budget, use tools, as well as use the principles of physical engineering."

With the competition only in its second year, Hall said he hoped to draw students from all areas of the University in future competitions.

"I don't think it was any harder for me than anyone else who hadn't had a lot of experience with tools," said sophomore Laurel Cooper, the lone Trinity contender. "The design part was the hardest for me. I was just pretty happy to have a working machine."

But, as in any good game, the competition was not without controversy. One team used a loophole in the rules - if the overtime ended in a tie, the team with the higher seed would advance - to its advantage, by creating a robot designed solely to block other teams from scoring. The team ended up fourth.

The top seed going into the competition was Anuwat Triratanawasai, a senior who built the robot for a mechanical engineering class.

"Since this is my first year, I tried to make everything really simple, one basket which would get the balls in and out," said Triratanawasai, whose robot boasted a spring-loaded basket as its primary feature.

But the winning robot, El Chupacabra, was created by seniors Max Cohen and Robert Schneider. El Chupacabra, in Mexican legend, is a half-human, half-animal vampire that devours its prey. The robot, which lived up to its name, had a mouth-like contraption which opened up and closed once in the pit, so the team could pick up the most balls.

"One of the reasons I think we are so successful is that Rob builds his own car and has a lot of hands-on experience," Cohen said.

Cohen and Schneider split the $2,000 first-place prize. Second place and $1,000 went to Triratanawasai, while sophomore Bryan Chavez took home $500 for third place. There was also a $100 prize for best design.

"My girlfriend already has plans for the money," Schneider said.

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