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Boelter Beast Robot

  • By Judy Lin Eftekhar, Reed Hutchinson
  • Published May 1, 2001 8:00 AM

Bryan Posner, a fourth-year engineering student, jumped at the chance to compete in Robotica: The Ultimate Robot Competition, a contest televised on The Learning Channel.

He learned about the contest in a letter sent to the Boelter Hall mailbox of UCLA's Mechanical Engineering Society, of which he is president. The letter was from the show's producers.

He picked up the phone and called them.

"They told me, 'We'd love to have UCLA,' " Posner says. "They had faith that we could get it done."

Posner rounded up a dozen other engineering students. Fellow fourth-year student Matthew Frost volunteered to serve as project director. Their competitors - mainly hobbyists with no schoolwork demands - already had a head start in designing and building their robots. The UCLA team would have two months from concept to execution. They launched into researching combat robot designs and rounding up sponsors to cover out-of-pocket expenses - while continuing to keep pace with their classwork.

The competition would pit them against three other robots in contests of strategy, speed and strength. Challenges would include surviving flamethrowers, pneumatic spikes and pile drivers, among other obstacles; running a figure-8 race that could include robot-ramming combat; and crashing through a pane of glass and a wall of bricks.

Making use of formulas they'd learned as engineering students, the team members developed a tank-drive design that they calculated would enable the robot to be both strong and fast. Team members cut the steel frame and base plate and constructed the drive shafts in the engineering school's student machine shop, while staff members in the school's machine shop welded the pieces together. The low-slung chassis, looking foreboding with seven sharp spikes in front, was mounted on four wheels. The remote-controlled robot would run off two wheelchair motors powered by two 12-volt batteries. The students dubbed their creation "The Boelter Beast."

Two months after they began, they reported to The Learning Channel's Hollywood studios for the taping of the April 4th segment. They fought to the finish against Kritical Mass, Grimlock and Hot Wheels.

"We almost made it," Posner says. "It was a good battle. We ran neck-and-neck to the very end."

The Boelter Beast lost by only five points. They probably would have won, Posner says, if team members hadn't decided after 14 hours on the set that they needed to get back to campus to study for finals.

"It was fun, a great experience for everyone," says Posner, who adds that he even received a job offer from one of the team's sponsors. "He was really impressed that we got the job done well and on a deadline."

The team already has plans to build another robot. But not right now. First, they need to finish their homework.