Robo Rice Rumble Sets the Bar High


Seventeen engineering students from
the 7 teams that competed.


Twenty-one determined engineering undergrads competed in the fourth annual mechanical engineering design contest, held Nov. 16. Dubbed “Robo Rice Rumble,” this competition was the most technically difficult yet.

The challenge: build a robot that can transport shifting loads of rice and dump it into a box. The catch? The robot first has to climb three stairs with slightly different heights and then down a step to get in position to dump the rice. Then it’s back down the stairs to get more rice. The goal is to dump as much rice as possible in three 10-minute rounds, and touching the robot results in a 20 percent penalty deducted from the final measure of rice.


Matt Burney and Julien Finlay


ME juniors Matt Burney and Julien Finley took first place, winning a $500 prize for successfully dumping almost 10 pounds of rice in three rounds. Second place and a $200 prize went to the team of ME senior Doug Mullen, economics junior Aaron Keefe, ME junior Thompson Graves, and ME senior Joel Konefal. Third place and $100 went to the team of ME/economics senior Kasey Smith, ME junior Mahir Rabbi, ME junior Ryan Habbley, and BME/ME junior Matt Hawk.

By popular vote of all the competitors, ME/CS junior Brian Hilgeford won $100 Best Fabrication and $100 Best Looking awards. Hilgeford’s robot couldn’t make it up the stairs, but it looked fantastic, was well constructed and maneuvered like a dream on flat surfaces. He good-naturedly let kids in the audience drive his masterpiece during the first and second rounds until he was officially eliminated.


Brian Hilgeford receives his
award from ME chair Ken Hall.


More than 50 students signed up for the competition at the start of the semester. By the first milestone, when teams had to demonstrate their robot could climb at least one step, half of the students had dropped out. After the second demonstration milestone, only two teams could successfully maneuver the course and dump rice. Every team was allowed to compete, but took a minute penalty during the first round for each failed milestone.

“The stairs are so high relative to the maximum allowed size of the robots, it makes this competition an order of magnitude harder than last year,” said senior Josh Johnston. Johnston won last year’s March Mayhem robotic basketball competition. Johnston and his team of junior Eli Nichols, senior Weber Wu and senior Garrett Jones couldn’t solve a center of gravity issue with their robot, which kept tipping over backwards.


Third place winners (l to r) Mahir Rabbi,
Matt Hawk, Kasey Smith and
Ryan Habbley


Each team had a budget of $300 and could order any parts they wanted from several parts catalogs. Several groups chipped in additional money from their own pockets.

The winning team of Burney and Finley based their robot on a 1/25 scale German World War II tank they cannibalized for the drive train and tank track system. Decked out with a huge bin for rice, the team’s robot scaled the stairs with ease, making multiple rice runs each round. Burney predicted the team’s win, and said he planned to use his winnings to pay a parking fine.


Second place winners (l to r) Thompson
Graves, Aaron Keefe, Doug Mullen
and Joey Konefal


The second place team of Mullen, Keefe, Graves and Konefal took a different approach. They used the weighty rice loads to good advantage by moving the rice bin forwards and back along a rail in order to shift the robot’s center of gravity. Elegant and methodically efficient in working its way up and down the stairs, the team just couldn’t keep pace with the massive transport capabilities of the Burney/Finley robot.


(l to r) Thomas Stratton, Zach Dunn,
Meredith Williams and Marc Palmeri


The battle for third place was a hard fight, with a mere 3.49 ounces of rice separating the winning team of Smith, Rabbi, Habbley and Hawk from the team of junior Marc Palmeri, senior Zach Dunn, senior Meredith Williams and junior Thomas Stratton.

“Taking third place was a miracle,” said Kasey Smith. “Our robot wasn’t even working an hour before the competition!”

Special congratulations go to Brayden Glad, Gareth Guvanasen, the only freshmen to compete.


(l to r) Brayden Glad and Gareth Guvanasen


Contest organizers Robert Kielb and Kenneth Hall hope this competition will inspire students for the spring 2005 regional American Society of Mechanical Engineers meeting. Duke is hosting the meeting on campus, and it will feature another rice/stair transport contest.

“We are hoping that some of these students will form teams for the spring competition,” said Hall, chair of the mechanical engineering department.