I went back to school for a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering in 2011 after accumulating ten years of rust on the job. It was a pretty sweet deal - my employer paid for it all, let me off work for three semesters, AND paid my salary. What?! How could I NOT go for that?

One of the classes I took was an upper-level undergrad Electronics class. With no TA and three other classes to teach, the professor told us that our grade was going to be determined almost exclusively by a couple of long-term group projects because he had no time to spend grading homework, quizzes, or exams. One of those projects ended up being an autonomous robot competition. Filled with regret from my piss-poor performance on a similar project as an undergrad, I was pumped: I had something to prove, dammit!

The class was given three options: regular ol’ sumo bots (i.e. push your opponent out of the ring), some other option I can’t remember, or SUMO DUEL BOTS. In a sumo-duel-bot competition, the opponents start facing away from each other, move to the edge of the ring, turn around, optionally fire a projectile or two at each other, and then try to push each other out of the ring. Of course, undergrads are stupid and have no idea how much can be realistically accomplished in eight weeks (later extended to twelve), so… sumo duel bot competition it was!

Most of the teams spent half of their time just trying to make a working infrared beacon (to be attached to your opponent, so your bot can find them). I holed myself up in the lab for 30+ hours a week, and it STILL came down to the wire for us. Who needs functional testing anyway, am I right?!

Listen to me get nerdy at the competition after an all-nighter:

You might be thinking, “Those robots suck!” and you’re right. But try to understand - the assignment was to build them out of as few non-discrete components as possible. So… resistors, capacitors, and transistors - lots and lots of transistors. It was kind of like programming in assembly.

Semifinal round of the robot duel (part 1):

(part 2):

… and the final round:

Sonofabitch! We lost?! After all that work!

In the end, I’d say it came down to the other robot beating us to the punch. If only ours were a LITTLE faster we might have won. I’m pretty sure we won the crowd choice for Best Designed, which works for me (and I agree).