Pratt Junior Josh Johnston Wins March Mayhem

Nearly 100 people watched the 3rd Annual Mechanical Engineering "March Mayhem" robot competition March 1. Each team’s goal was to sink as many ping pong balls into the plexiglass baskets as possible in a 2-minute round, but the crowd was just as pleased with an unsuccessful scoring attempt if there was innovative design behind it.

First place and a $500 purse went to Pratt junior Josh Johnston and his robot, “Dr. J.” Pratt sophomore John Cornwell and his robot “Johnny V” took second place and a $200 prize. Third place and $100 went to the team of Pratt seniors Ben Yaffe and Vicki Krapohl. Their robot was named “Alana,” after Vicki’s Blue Devil teammate Alana Beard.

Pratt junior Bryan Chavez won the Best Fabrication, Pratt senior Tim Choate won the award for best shooting robot, and a team of Pratt seniors Tom Burney and Chris Giusto won the award for best looking robot. Each team will receive $100.

Over the last month, 54 undergraduates built 31 robots for the competition. Elimination and seeding trials were held the previous week, and 24 teams made it to the championship playoff.

Though all teams start with the same kit parts, on the whole the robots looked like the result of creative raids to the kitchen for gadgets. Cardboard was a commonly used component. “We gave each team $50 to chose any parts they wanted from three hardware catalogs,” said mechanical engineering professor Robert Kielb, who organized the event.

The majority of designs featured either a grasping claw on a long arm, or a shovel-like scoop for getting and dunking balls. Only a few robots exhibited “shooting” capability, designed to loft the ball into the basket instead of dunking or dropping it. One robot, built by the ME/ECE double majoring team of Chris Dillenbeck and Brian Shaff, featured an innovative vertical conveyor belt that carried the balls up, over and then into the basket.

The contest organizers wanted to encourage more diversity in design than in past year, so the court featured an unusual 3 baskets on each side. The tallest basket, at 18 inches off the court, earned 3 points per ball. Two lower baskets (9-inches high) earned teams 1 point for each ball.

Rules against fouling and interfering with the other team’s robot were loosened up this year too. In past years, top seeded teams could simply play defensively and still do very well, said Kielb.

“This year we’re allowing a lot more aggression on the field,” Kielb said. Even in the first round, pushing, shoving and overt nudging were common. But most teams played it safe, making sure everything was working and learning the playing field.

Second Round Aggression

The gloves came off in the second round of eliminations with the first use of “non-malicious debris” to block access to the baskets.

To the appreciative cheer of the crowd, the Joseph Elliott (ME) and Patrick Colsher (EE/BME) team launched their “quack attack” against Bryan Chavez (ECE), tilting their scooper to dump an impressive number of leftover metal machine parts in front of Chavez’s 3-point goal basket.

Why is it called the quack attack? “Don’t ask,” said Colsher, laughing. “It’s a long story!”

Seconds later, gearhead Chavez unveiled his own offensive strategy, startling the audience to laughter when the back half of his robot seemingly fell off to create a nearly 4-inch tall blockade of rolled rubber on a plywood base.

Elliot/Colsher weren’t deterred, and simply maneuvered around the blockade to score in the shorter 1-point basket.

Chavez was disappointed his gambit didn’t work. “I don’t know what to say,” he said, acknowledging he was out of the game with a shrug and sigh. “I had hoped the blockade would work and surprise them.”

Meanwhile, ECE major Cornwell stunned the competition by scoring a phenomenal 99 points in one round, dumping 33 balls into his 3-point basket. His design featured a wide mesh box-shaped scoop that used a rotating cardboard paddle to fill the scoop with ping-pong balls.

Third Round Clash of the Titans

In the third round, top seeded ME/ECE major Johnston went head to head against the team of ECE majors Adam Piekarski and Chris Barrett. Nearly matched in height with long-armed robots and scoops at the top, both teams strained to overbalance the other. Piekarski-Barrett eventually toppled and lay inert as Johnston won the round.

The ME team of Ben Yaffe and Duke women’s basketball player Vicki Krapohl won their third round match with a desperately lucky score that left their robot flipped over backwards.

Yaffe couldn’t get the robot’s plastic scoop up past the bungee cord securing the plexiglass basket to the backboard. As the time ran down, Yaffe gave the robot everything he could, tipping the robot over backwards as the scoop finally slipped free. His gambit launched a ping pong ball three feet into the air. The audience held its breath and then cheered wildly as the ball landed in the 3-point basket.

“I meant to do that, really!” said Yaffe after the match, excited and grinning from ear to ear.

Elliot-Colsher’s debris strategy backfired, snaring their robot in their own trap. The ME team of Matt Kaloupek and Manny Stockman won the round easily with their claw robot, but suffered a claw malfunction that lingered into the final round.

Final Round Antics

Kaloupek-Stockman matched up against Yaffe-Krapohl in a bid for third place, but dropped their cache of balls. Yaffe-Krapohl scored brilliantly and hurried to get more balls, only to accidentally flip. Yaffe watched anxiously as Kaloupek-Stockman maneuvered around their downed opponent to score, but still won the match 7 balls to their 5.

Super-scoring Cornwell matched up against top-seeded Johnston in the championship round. Cornwell accidentally dumped an entire scoop of balls and couldn’t recover in time to out score his opponent.

Duke’s Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department in the Pratt School of Engineering organizes the March Mayhem competition each year in part to give students an outlet for their creativity and a chance to have some fun. “A contest makes design more real and exciting for students,” Kielb said.

Students in the audience chatted away about the pros and cons of different design approaches, and talked about plans for next year’s contest.

“Everybody’s robot would win if they would just work the way they were supposed to,” laughed one student.

March Mayhem is sponsored by the Duke’s Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science department in the Pratt School of Engineering, the Lord Foundation and through the gift of free robotics kit parts from Kaye Products.