Fans at this weekend's inaugural Mayor's Cup men's hockey game between Union and RPI at the Times Union Center will be treated to an unusual shootout during the second intermission: Robo-Hockey.
Four teams of mechanical engineering students who designed and built the wheeled robots about the size of a briefcase will compete in a four-minute period Saturday night in front of thousands of spectators.
Starting from one of the face-off circles, one robot gets 20 seconds to fire a four-ounce blue puck past another robot positioned in the goalie crease. The process repeats itself until the period ends.
The project began during the fall term. First-year students in three introductory engineering classes, along with students in an advanced mechatronics course, assembled the robots following specific guidelines. Another robot was built as part of a sophomore research seminar.
Made of either wood or steel, none of the robots exceeds 18 inches wide, 18 inches long and 6 inches high. Each is outfitted with a microprocessor and directed with a controller that allows the machine to block, shoot or drive.
"The idea was to get engineering students to do more in terms of building things," said Ronald Bucinell, associate professor of mechanical engineering. He, along with David Hodgson, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Sudhir Khetan, visiting instructor of bioengineering, oversaw the project.
"We wanted to keep it simple this first year and then build on it for future competitions."
Bucinell and his colleagues at RPI had talked about ways for the prominent engineering programs to reach a broader audience by tapping into the fierce athletic rivalry between the schools. Each year, the football teams play for the "Dutchman Shoes Trophy," the longest running collegiate football rivalry in New York
A number of institutions stage Robo-Hockey competitions. But those are typically played on a makeshift plywood rink in an auditorium or classroom.
When plans were announced for this year's inaugural Mayor's Cup between Union and RPI, Bucinell and others saw a chance to stage a Robo-Hockey match on ice, at a large venue in front of thousands of fans.
"This was a perfect opportunity to get engineering students and their academic accomplishments out in front of people who normally wouldn't go to an engineering competition," Bucinell said. "We hope it also inspires young people to consider careers in engineering."
Regrettably, RPI recently had to drop out of Saturday's contest because its robot wouldn't be ready. So the competition has become an intramural match for Union students.
Bucinell expects RPI to return next year, and would like to expand the competition to other ECAC schools.
In the meantime, students continue to tinker in the lab with their robots, which sport names like Gretzky 9000 and YOLO. They held a dry run during the first intermission of the recent women's hockey game against Penn State at Messa Rink. Despite some minor issues, they believe the robots are ready for the big stage.
"This has been a good learning experience," said Zach Reinert '13, a mechanical engineering major from Houston. "We were skeptical at first, but it's turned out to be fun. We ran into some things that didn't work, but that's good, because you just keep working until you get it right."