A University of Rochester mouse and its handlers are heading for the "Olympics."
Not the Olympics in Lillehammer, though; not even a mouse olympics. Instead, Rochester's Micro Mouse will be competing in the third BEAM Robot Games, also known as the "Robot Olympics," March 4-6 in Toronto.
The Rochester Micro Mouse is a small, autonomous robot that will try to weave its way through a maze more quickly than talented opponents from several institutions, most notably MIT and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
"We're ready for MIT this year," says Jeff Weisberg, graduate student in the Department of Electrical Engineering and head of the team of students that built the mouse. Thousands of spectators are expected to turn out not only to watch the micro mouse competition but also other robot competitions, such as wrestling, high-jumping, and rope-climbing. The competition is part of the National Hobby & Craft Show.
Weisberg and about half a dozen undergraduate and graduate student are putting the micro mouse through its final preparation and training. Even during the drive to Toronto the team will use a lap-top computer to program the robot, an oscilloscope to test it, and a soldering iron for last-minute connections.
Since Weisberg started the Rochester micro mouse program three years ago, the team's mouse has competed in several competitions; it placed third at last year's "Robot Olympics," behind MIT's Mitee Mice and the Canadian Mouse-mobiles.
"Last year our mouse didn't get very far," concedes Weisberg, "but it did move, beep, and flash its lights, beating out several other entries that couldn't even move."
In Toronto each competing mouse will be placed in a maze (about 10 feet by 10 feet) and given 15 minutes to roam around, seeking the fastest path from start to finish. Each mouse will be judged on how long it takes to find a path through the maze and how quickly it scurries down that path.
The 4-lb. mouse is a 4-inch by 6-inch by 6-inch block of computer chips, wires, sensors and gears. Several students, including Weisberg and undergraduates Andy Forsberg and Peter Newcomb, have been busy programming algorithms into its computer brain, which is more powerful than a personal computer. The brain sits atop a lightweight aluminum chassis containing motors and gears. Feedback from eight infrared sensors helps the mouse see and maneuver around walls and remember where it has been.
"You need lots of programming to encode enough information so the robot can figure out what to do in a maze," says Weisberg. "Keeping it going straight, knowing how fast and how far it has moved, and having it turn accurately are all big problems -- not to mention finding its way through the maze in the shortest amount of time."
The micro mouse team also includes Yoram Fisher. The team draws students from the departments of mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, computer science, optics, and physics and astronomy. The project is funded by the mechanical and electrical engineering departments.