When the Irish mechantronic backs go marching by…

by William G. Gilroy

Fighting IBots

Most diehard Notre Dame football fans are aware that the Blue (offense) defeated the Gold (defense) 68-33 during Saturday’s 80th Blue-Gold football game. A few probably even understand the arcane system that led to the final score.

However, even the most diehard fan is probably unaware that the Gold defeated the Blue 59-56 in another hotly contested football game that also took place on campus Saturday.

A total of 70 senior mechanical engineering design students competed in Saturday’s first Fighting IBots Mechantronic Football Competition at Stepan Center. The engineering students designed and built robotic football players as part of a class requirement for a course called “Mechanical Engineering Senior Design,” a capstone course that brings the entire mechanical engineering curriculum together in one project. The course was led this year by professors Michael Stanisic and Mihir Sen.

The students were divided into blue and gold squads that designed and constructed 10 robots per team. The “players” included linemen, fullbacks, wide receivers and quarterbacks. The robots were the approximate size of printers and were equipped with sensors that flashed different colors when players were hit, tackled or injured.

The game consisted of two 20-minute halves, with a 15-minute halftime. The rules of the game were those for 8-man football, modified for mechanical play. The players were semi-autonomous and controlled by the student designers with remote controllers.

Although the football game was the equivalent of an exam for the senior design students, the atmosphere was decidedly different from any exam most us have experienced. The game opened with the singing of the national anthem and touchdowns were celebrated with a playing of the Notre Dame Victory March and push-ups from the student section of the crowd.

Quarterbacks and wide receivers were capable of carrying on a passing game, but design modifications to defensive players resulted in a reliance on the running game. Most of the scoring consisted of breakaway touchdown runs by quarterbacks and running backs.

Despite the festive game day atmosphere, the event reflected an accumulated knowledge of sophisticated mechanical engineering design concepts. The experience of designing and building the football devices acquainted the seniors with important principles used in intelligent prosthetics and other innovative robot-related research being conducted by Notre Dame researchers.

The teams of engineers and operators were divided into smaller working groups for such elements as linemen’s legs, quarterbacks’ arms and play calling programming. Each squad was headed by a head coach and two assistant coaches. The experience of working on functional teams and then coming together as a full team to carry out the final project mirrored what the students will find when they join professional engineering design firms.

The winning Gold squad received the Brian Hederman Memorial Robotic Competition Award. Hederman was a Notre Dame student who suffered an untimely death after his freshman year in 1995. The award plaque was inspired by a drawing he left behind.

The competition was sponsored by Bill Hederman, Brian’s father, and Vince Cushing and Skip Horvath, all members of the Notre Dame class of 1970.

The event was also supported by Clean Urban Energy, the American Society of Engineering Education and Notre Dame’s Department of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering.

Special contributions were made by R. Michael Schafer of the Department of Electrical Engineering, who designed the Zigbee protocol remote controllers, and Gregory Brownell and Jeremy Newkirk, technicians from Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering, who designed the force, tackle and “agony” sensors.