Frozen-themed obstacle course no fairy tale

Every semester students in Mechanical Engineering’s second year design course design and build fully mechano-electric robots, which they then put to the test in an obstacle-ridden race for the most points and the pride of the MecE 260 challenge. This year’s robot challenge was Frozen-themed. But it was no fairy tale for most teams.

The initial challenge teams faced was for the robot to push a “Stolen Present” into a pit. Once the present was in the pit, teams were awarded points. But, the present in the pit also released a huge styrofoam “snow ball,” which teams then had to avoid if they wanted to keep their points. While many teams managed to get the present into the pit, only a couple managed to avoid the boulder that came chasing after their success. What’s more, the pit itself proved problematic for many teams as the wheels on their robots got caught in the space between the present and the edge of the pit.

Teams that manoeuvered past the pit then had to manipulate foam icebergs across an ‘ice rink,’ a low-friction surface. One team in particular pinned all their hopes for the course on their robot’s mechanism for carrying the icebergs. Dylan Vaclavik and Riley Forbes had high hopes for carrying an iceberg across the finish line to success but in the end their motor stalled out before they even left the starting gate.

“We had high hopes,” said Dylan, shaking his head.

“You can plan as much as you like,” said Riley, “but you can’t design the real world.”

Learning to engineer in the real world is the whole point of the assignment, says Professor Pierre Mertiny, who taught the course this semester. “This is their first opportunity to put all the engineering science they have learned in to practice,” he said.

The assignment highlights the challenges of real world engineering problems. “You can measure things in solid works, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to work in reality,” said one student, whose robot then got stuck in the pit.

One team had an elaborate plans to avoid the boulder, only to have their motor disconnect before their robot could even push the present. Besides falling into the present pit, robots also fell over the edge of the course, got their axles stuck in the present’s wrapping paper, were pinned beneath icebergs and got stuck in the ice trap at the end of the course.  

“This is the tricky part of engineering,” said Mertiny. “It’s a real world science.”

And there’s no doubt that students learned that lesson, even if their robots spun out in the present pit.