Robot wars: Student-built robots face off in competition

A metal-framed robot sits on a table

 The first-prize-winning robot, constructed by engineering students Rex Congdon and Wesley Jonson.

SF State engineering students built robots from scratch in just two months

This story originally appeared on the University’s Bold Thinkers blog, which ran from May 2018 to Nov. 2019.

Do you know how your electronics work well enough to explain them? Maybe you do — but could you build them yourself? In San Francisco State’s first annual robotics competition, teams of students did just that, going head-to-head to complete a series of challenges using robots that they designed, built and programmed, all in a single semester.

“Maybe these students will be lead design engineers or CEOs in a couple of years,” says Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Mojtaba Azadi. “They have the potential — in a matter of just two months, this is what they’ve done.”

Two students show off their robot

Winners Wesley Jonson and Rex Congdon show off their robot.

The competition came out of the mechatronics lab course (Engineering 416). In mechatronics classes, students learn to combine different disciplines — mechanical, electrical, material and computer engineering — to design products that are efficient and cost-effective. For the competition, teams had to construct and program robots that could draw a circle and a square of a specific size on a piece of paper, and also detect and connect randomized colored points on a grid. As a bonus round, the robots could write a given text and draw the SF State logo in detail, which they showed off on May 15 in SF State’s Makerspace.

The seven teams each brewed up their own way of tackling the challenges. Some students programmed their robots from scratch, while others scavenged bits of code from online directories and tailored the programs to their needs. The robots themselves were constructed from everything from plywood to fishing line to individually machined pieces of metal, and many included polymer pieces that the students designed and printed using the Makerspace’s 3D printer. They ranged in size from something that could be tucked behind a picture frame to an apparatus that would barely fit in an oven.

Three students show off their robot

Patrick Tomsky, Sean Paw and Tan Bui pose with their second-place finisher.

Students Rex Congdon and Wesley Jonson, who won first place in the competition, went the extra mile in every respect. Rather than buying prefabricated pieces, Congdon decided to hand-mill the robot’s frame himself. “We were looking at kits and how long it would take to get things delivered, and we realized we could do it cheaper ourselves,” Congdon explained. And Jonson not only trained the robot on a neural network to complete the assigned tasks, but also created a user-friendly interface that a non-engineer could use. They received $250 in winnings for their first-place finish.

Other teams elected for style — like one team who constructed a robot with its bulk hidden behind a picture frame. “We wanted ours to be aesthetically pleasing,” said student Sean Paw, whose team took second in the competition. Because it draws upright and could be hung on a wall, he says, “it’s a conversation piece. You could imagine it drawing at a party.”

You can watch the winning team’s robot draw the SF State logo here. Azadi doesn’t plan to stop at this year’s competition. “We'll have another competition next year, maybe even bigger — and hopefully have other labs and colleges enter as well,” he said.