Rock ’em, sock ’em robots

When the approximately 3,000 media swarm to the Field House for the 2008 vice presidential debate, they may notice two robotic boxers, one blue, the other red, duking it out near Mallinckrodt Student Center.

With arms of durable aluminum tubing, sheet metal for the bodies, a backpack-like strap that allows the robots to move and pivot, the robots are the brainchildren of EnCouncil president Lee Cordova, a senior biomedical engineering major, and friends Sam Wight and Matt Watkins, mechanical engineering majors.

And while the robots don’t have names like Rocky or Sonny Liston, it’s pretty obvious their colors are symbolic of Oct. 2

“The colors are coincidental,” said Cordova. “We gave them different colors to tell them apart. But it became obvious there was political significance.”

In fact, Cordova and his co-inventors briefly toyed with the idea of contacting the candidates to see if they would like to joust a while before the debate, but quickly saw the poor likelihood of that happening.

Cordova, Wight and Watkins came up with the idea as an activity for Thurtene Carnival in the spring of 2007.

“EnCouncil always comes up with games to raise money for charity, and we hatched this idea,” Cordova said. ‘In part it grew out of my interest in high school of making puppets.”

The first prototype was made of cardboard, PVC, rope and a bungee cord. And it didn’t last long during Thurtene 2007.

“The robots were not equal, and things kept breaking down,” Cordova said. “If you observed for a while, you knew which one to choose. We were constantly in repair mode. We were operational for only about two or three hours. It was pretty frustrating. We came away really wanting to make them more reliable.”

For Thurtene Carnival 2008, they worked with Guy Genin, Ph.D., WUSTL assistant professor of mechanical engineering, who took an interest in their work,

Consulting with Genin, they made numerous upgrades, such as covering the PVC, which tended to wear away, with copper tubing, making it more wear resistant. They switched out the rope, which had frayed and broken with metal cable encased in plastic tubing. They also used lots of lubricant on that to reduce friction.

“It ended up working much, much better,” Cordova said. “They were functional the entire Saturday and most of Sunday until they broke. It won the Best Game Award for the ’08 carnival.”

The PVC broke, possibly an effect of very cold weather that weekend.

After Thurtene 2008, Congress of the South Forty approached them and asked them to help them with a Red vs. Blue debate program, a comedy review following the debate. Congress of the South Forty wanted to be sure that the robots were more reliable and contributed some money to that effect.

They completely re-did the arms, making them out of aluminum square tubing. Sheet metal on the bodies and arms replaced the PVC. They changed a metal wire for a plastic strap, allowing the robots to go around sharp corner and avoid elongating like the original rope did. The strap material is fray resistant.

A test run Sept. 6 at the Big Bang freshman event at the St. Louis Science Center went perfectly.

“This is our senior year, and between the three of us we wanted a design that won’t have to be re-invented, as we’ve done,” Cordova said. “These robots will be good to go for Thurtene 2010 and beyond. That’s our hope.”

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