Par for the course: Student-designed robots battle professor’s daughter in miniature golf contest

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It wasn’t Tiger versus Phil, but the energy and excitement level in the gallery were palpable as 6-year-old Gracie squared off against a trio of robots named Fiona, Big Bertha and The Little Engine that Could in a round of miniature golf.

At stake for Gracie was upholding the family name in a contest that has become a ritual for the kids of William Keat, professor of mechanical engineering.

Gracie Keat, 6, tested her miniature golf skills against a trio of robots designed by students in a mechanical engineering class.

Left: Rachel Andreana '18 works the remote control to get her machine ready to putt.

Right: Gracie Keat, 6, tested her miniature golf skills against a trio of robots designed by students in a mechanical engineering class
taught by her father, Professor William Keat.

When they turn school-age, dad has them play mini golf against robots designed by his students. His oldest, Joy (now 19), sunk an 8-foot putt on the first hold en route to her victory. Son Ian (now 14) narrowly lost on an indoor course.

The stakes were slightly higher for the remote-controlled robots, and more specifically, the students in Keat’s class who designed them. The match served as their final exam, and the robot’s performance would count 25 percent toward the final grade.

“The purpose of the class is for the students to learn about machine elements like motors, gears, bearings and actuators,” said Keat, who joined Union in 1996. “Students also get to work in large teams, and the challenges that come from that.”

Three teams of eight students each (mostly seniors) designed machines that could putt, drive and aim. A time limit of three minutes per hole meant the machines needed to get to the ball and aim quickly.

Six remote-controlled channels were required to control each machine, as each one has at least five motors. As Keat explained, the ease with which the robots can be controlled would be a major factor in how well they perform.

After 10 weeks in the classroom, it was time to head to Pirate’s Hideout in Waterford, about 20 minutes from campus.

“It’s nice to finally be able to take the machines out and see how they perform,” said Jimmy Wang, a mechanical engineering major from New York City. “Our goal is to beat little Gracie.”

Opting for a purple ball to match her flashy footwear, Gracie didn’t appear intimidated by 24 college students and their machines. She flitted from hole to hole, often ignoring the advice of her well-intentioned father.

“Stop coaching me,” she admonished him.

Gracie played the entire 18-hole course. The three machines played six holes each. After eight holes, the match was tied.

“I’ve never built a mechanical system before,” said Rachel Andreana ’18, a mechanical engineering major from Farmington, Conn. “At first, it was a little overwhelming. But we got the hang of it.”

In predicting the outcome, Keat didn’t play family favorite.

“If the machines can hold together for the full 18 holes, I expect a close match, with a slight edge to the machines,” said Keat. “If one or more of the machines break down before the end of the match, Gracie will win decisively.”

Alas, the machines stumbled down the stretch. There were some minor issues, like loose screws and a broken gear box on one machine. But after 18 holes, all three robots were still functional.

Gracie pulled away to win convincingly, 87-71 (par was 55).

“With six different remote controls typically involved in aligning the putter and executing the putt, which Gracie hardly had to think about, the general consensus among the teams was that they needed more practice with the controls,” Keat said.

Before the match, Gracie couldn’t predict how well she would do. Now, though, to the victor go the spoils.

She celebrated her win with a kiddie cup of vanilla ice cream with rainbow sprinkles.

Engineering students in Professor William Keat's class designed robots to challenge Keat's 6-year-old daughter Gracie to a game of miniature golf.