An Ewok doll stands beside an autonomous robot designed from the University of British Columbia’s Engineering Physics 253 course in preparation for the programs’ annual robot competition (Photo by Clare Kiernan/University of British Columbia)

Star Wars robots to the rescue at UBC annual competition

Students created fully autonomous robots for final exam in engineering physics course

It was a day of heroics at UBC’s Vancouver campus on Thursday, as engineering students faced the task of saving Ewoks and Chewbacca from the evil Empire.

The annual Star Wars robot competition is the culmination of the required second-year course Engineering Physics 253 – Introduction to Instrument Design. Parents are invited to see the final results.

“It’s not usual to bring family into students’ final exams, but that is what is happening today,” said Andre Marziali, director of engineering physics at UBC, who has been teaching the course and leading the competition for 18 years.

Sixteen teams of students have worked throughout the summer to build autonomous Ewok rescue robots from scratch. Autonomous – meaning, the robots have to navigate the course all on their own, without their builders driving them via remote control.

Each team has two minutes to locate and rescue as many Ewoks, represented by plush dolls, as they can to earn points, while steering around various hazards without triggering an alarm and sending their cargo back to the start along a metal zipline.

Extra points are awarded for saving Chewbacca at the end of the course.

In previous competitions, the robots have had to follow black electrical tape up a ramp, then follow an infrared signal to detect the edge of a cliff, then reach down and pick up a doll.

This year, Marziali added two six-inch gaps within the course. “Not sure how people will get to the other side, but we thought we’d add a gap.”

The course included a small version of R2D2, which emitted infrared signals at either 1kHz or 10kHz.

“When R2D2 is emitting at 10kHz, it is safe to enter the Empire stronghold. He has disabled the alarm,” Marziali said. “When he is emitting at 1kHz, it is not safe.”

Marziali elaborated on the advancements of the competition in recent years.

“The student’s ability to go to the internet, go to various websites, developers and get information on brand-new technology, has outstripped our ability to keep up as instructors, to the point that we are now facilitating their learning, more than teaching.”


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