Williamsport, Pa. -- After a hard-fought and respectable fourth-place finish in April's inaugural collegiate-level BattleBots competition, Pennsylvania College of Technology's SWORD (Student Wildcats of Robotic Design) club is looking to build -- or, rather, "rebuild" -- on its national success.
The club traveled to Minnesota with "Excalibur," a wedge-shaped warrior that ultimately lost its weapon, but kept itself in competition long enough to win two battles and prompt a forfeit in a third. An extensive overhaul of the robot is in the works for next spring's competition at Universal Studios in Orlando, Fla., and a faculty supervisor said dozens of willing hands ultimately could contribute to a project that is as educational as it is fun.
"There's so much learning going on with this," said David A. Probst, assistant professor of drafting and CAD technology (and SWORD adviser), who noted club members come from across Penn College's wide curricular spectrum. "We have welding students, electronics students -- even business and accounting students. It's open to everyone, no limits, and they all play a part."
If early-stage enthusiasm is any indication, the club is in for an exciting year.
"It's something that you can see in the kids' faces," Probst said. "They have ideas that I know will work." Among them is a new barrel-like weapon at the front of the robot, modeled on the churning blade of a woodshop jointer or planer and powered by a lawn-trimmer motor spinning at 10,000 rpm. The craft also might borrow from another of the college's academic areas -- alternative fuels -- with a reconfigured engine that runs partially on methanol.
In addition to more members and more interdisciplinary faculty involvement, the club has an ingredient that it clearly lacked last spring: time. The prototype went from design to competition in less than two months; this academic year offers a larger window prior to nationals. (The club originally hoped to compete in Los Angeles in November, as well, but voted against the trip when it was learned that an entirely different robot would have to be built for Orlando.)
"Excalibur's" refurbishing will be the main focus of the semester, but it won't be the only one.
At the suggestion of a top college administrator, who asked the group to build "robots for peace" and offered to put up the prize money for any in-house competition, SWORD will add a noncombative component this season.
Students will design a robot -- or, if participation allows, more than one -- to perform a series of specified tasks, Probst explained. Taking a cue from the national FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program for high schools, the robot(s) might be asked to navigate through a maze, pick up a ball and catapult it with the same mechanical arm.
The adviser hopes the addition might pique more interest across campus and provide ideas that the club can incorporate into the next "Excalibur." Also on the wish list is a corporate sponsor to help with materials and money, a sponsor whose logo would be prominently and exclusively displayed on the Orlando-bound robot.
The collegiate BattleBots competition pits motorized, weapon-wielding combatants against one another in a 1,600-square-foot "cage." But "battle" doesn't begin to describe the team's encounter with the "Icewave" from the University of New Orleans last spring. Powered by a 125-cc gasoline motor and twirling a 47-pound blade of tooled surgical steel, it chewed through "Excalibur's" quarter-inch skin, its structural frame, the bearing block and a wheel.
SWORD's tireless entry lived to fight again, thanks to teamwork and a hectic hour-and-a-half rebuild made especially tense by the fact that the BattleBots chief executive officer was videotaping the entire procedure.
"Excalibur's" sturdy design quickly cemented the Penn College team's reputation among some high-level players that included Carnegie Mellon University and M.I.T. The robot's shell had been so seamlessly welded together from four pieces of aluminum that some thought it had been machined from a solid piece.
"I told people, 'We're a technical school ... we're a hands-on school. This is what we do,'" Probst said.
"Alakran" from the University of Puerto Rico placed first, followed by "Class Act I" (Gateway Technical College in Wisconsin) in second and the "Icewave" in third. SWORD made an impressive debut, but it was a finish that Probst vows will not be repeated.
"We were fourth because we had some problems," he reminded students during an organizational meeting at the start of the Fall 2004 semester. "We won't be fourth again."