Hotshot bot scores Robotics Club $10,000 prize

J. Michael Bertsch, Research Reporter

For many electrical engineering or computer science students, Daktronics Engineering Hall is a place to call home on campus. A walkthrough of the building often reveals students sleeping in their chairs or eating a vending machine inspired dinner while working on their latest project.

Recently, the building gained a new inhabitant: a robot basketball-playing national champion named BALL-E.

The SDSU Robotics Club is a group dedicated to the design, construction and programming of robots for competitions around the country. Competitions range from autonomous small-scale racecars, robotic mining machines or even BALL-E, a basketball shooting champion, for the Land O’Lakes Bot Shot Competition.

“We got an email from Land O’Lakes inviting us to compete in this competition,” Robotics Club President Joel Quanbeck said.

A total of seven universities accepted the challenge. They must design a robot capable of shooting hoops to compete in a robotic game of H-O-R-S-E.

“They were only giving us two-and-a-half months to build this huge robot,” said Vice President Joel Kocer, “We thought there was no way.”

But after receiving Land O’Lakes’ care-package of dollars and robot parts, the team got to work. From mid-January to early March, the students constructed a robot capable of launching a basketball with precise angles and velocities.

“We took the robot to the fitness center and sent a recording to Land O’ Lakes,” said Quanbeck.

The video showed the robot making various shots throughout the court, and BALL-E played to impress. The team was invited to Minneapolis to play in the final four alongside Purdue University, University of Minnesota and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

But building a robot to shoot basketballs was only the first step for the team. On April 6, the team arrived at DeLaSalle High School in Minneapolis to prepare for the competition.

“A lot kind-of broke on the way there,” said former President Sterling Berg, “so we spent Saturday 3D-printing parts and practicing with the new balls.”

The practice seemed to pay off. The next day, under the dramatic spotlights of a high school gymnasium, the teams were given one hour for the four-way game of H-O-R-S-E.

“I’ve competed throughout all of high school and college,” said Kocer. “I’ve never felt pressure like that before.”

In a dramatic finish to the 60-minute time limit, SDSU and the University of Wisconsin-Madison ended in a tie. Both teams: H-O.

A tie-breaker was in place for the teams – make as many shots as possible in one minute. But as the team prepared for this new task, a loud crack was heard as the basketball guide-rail on BALL-E snapped in half.

The team rushed to wrap the rail in electrical tape and, within moments, began shooting the ball for the tie-breaker.

“We were rushing a bit after fixing the robot, so we only got two shots in the tie-breaker,” said Quanbeck.

But after the University of Wisconsin-Madison shot for their minute, the tie-breaker score was two to two. After deliberation from the judges, Land O’Lakes awarded both SDSU and Wisconsin the first-place title, along with a $10,000 prize.

Since the competition, the club has big plans moving forward. Using 3D-printers, they will be designing Battle-Bots and autonomous racecars for competitions in the coming year.

BALL-E, will be demoed at the upcoming Engineering Expo 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. on April 26, 2019, at the Swiftel Center.