'Spud Webb' Clinches Convincing Turkey Shoot Win


Matt Burney and Katie Bulgrin's robot 'Spud Webb' takes the winning shot.

‘Spud Webb’, a ping pong ball-dunking robot built by senior Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science (MEMS) majors Matt Burney and Katie Bulgrin, secured a convincing win in a basketball contest dubbed the Turkey Shoot Nov. 16. The annual event pitted 21 mechanical engineering students and their 11 robots against one another in a heated test of design and strategy. Student clubs gathered prior to the game in an effort to boost their ranks (see sidebar).

The secret to winning, said Burney and Bulgrin, is time. “We spent many hours in the machine shop,” Burney said. “I also took apart a lot of remote control toys as a kid.”

The team’s final design included a pick-up mechanism based on '05 Pratt graduate Josh Johnston’s successful tennis ball-hopper from a few years ago, Burney said. The pick-up arm loaded balls into an accordion-like lifter with a bumper-valve that shot the load when the robot got into scoring position and drove to the basket, he added.

‘Spud Webb’ faced perhaps its toughest competition in the elite 8 round against double major in MEMS and physics “Woody” Williams and senior MEMS major Gareth Barendse’s robot The CLAW. After scoring with their first load, ‘Spud Webb’ hustled back for balls that had fallen on the court during the initial pickup and took them to the rim, racking up addition points for the win.

“We would have lost if it hadn’t been for those balls on the court,” Burney said. The game ended with a score of 14-11, knocking the second highest scoring robot of the evening out early.

The Turkey Shoot win was the second for Burney who last fall finished first with teammate Julien Finlay in the Robo Rice Rumble, in which robots had to transport loads of rice up and down stairs before dumping them into a box.


The crowd watches on at the Turkey Shoot design contest in Fitzpatrick Center.

Second place in the Turkey Shoot went to senior MEMS majors James Short and Stephen Felkins for “The Howitzer,” the only shooting machine in the competition. Despite the robot’s failure to make a basket, the robot advanced through multiple tied rounds to the final, with the help of cheers from the impressive crowd. Audience participation determined the winner in the event of a tie.

“It’s very difficult to design a shooter,” said mechanical engineering professor Robert Kielb. “Though multiple teams tried it this year, we ended up with just one good shooter. The fact that it didn’t score shows the difficulty.”

Tied for third place were robots “El Guapo,” conceived by Biomedical Engineering (BME) and MEMS junior Emily Boecking and MEMS senior Roger Diebold, and “The Johnny D,” by senior Erik Henkelman and junior Annie Gitomer, both double majors in BME and MEMS.

“Spud Webb” also won the John Goodfellow Award for best fabrication and machining and the audience-granted NASHER award for artistic merit. “El Guapo” secured a second honor as the most aptly named robot, receiving the most Shakespeare Award votes from the crowd. “El Guapo” is Spanish for the handsome one, the team said.

Teammates Finlay and David Loaiza, both MEMS seniors, took the K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) Award, while the Rube Goldberg Award for most complicated machine went to senior MEMS majors Cameron Bell and Karen Holthouse, who built the first ever pneumatic machine.

“We told them it would never work when they submitted their design concept,” said associate dean for student affairs Linda Franzoni. “But they proved us wrong.” Other students had attempted such a design in the past, added Kielb, but the “Lewinski 4000” was the first ever to compete.

A number of other students played important roles behind the scenes in the design, machining and fabrication of the robots, Franzoni said.

Among the underclassmen who participated, “Dan Ryan and Chinchun Ooi were the most notable for their continuous and loyal participation,” Franzoni said. “Kudos to them from the entire ME 141 class.” Ryan is a sophomore and Ooi a freshman. Neither has declared a major.


From left: Gareth Barendse and "Woody" Williams with their robot the CLAW.

After the event, ‘Spud Webb’ successfully defended its winning title in an impromptu re-match against tough competitor the CLAW. Burney vowed to be back with a new and improved robot design for the March Mayhem competition.

Audience member and Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) senior John Cornwell, who came in second in a previous year, also said he will participate in the spring. “This will be my last chance to win,” he said.

The deadline for registering in the spring contest is Jan. 16.

The fall and spring design contests are sponsored each year by the Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science Department to give students a chance to do hands-on design. Plus, it's just a lot of fun. The events are also sponsored by the Lord Foundation of North Carolina.