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Engineering student Michael Georgese works on his robot before Thursday’s Lego Robo-Rat Competition at UCSB. Georgese and teammate Carlos Zing went on to win the event. (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)

The official rules for a Lego Robo-Rat Competition are simple; it’s the players who are complex.

UCSB engineering students in an electromechanical systems class tested their hand-built autonomous “handy boards” in a cutthroat double-elimination tournament on Thursday.

“Five and a half weeks ago, some of these students had never programmed before, many had never worked with electronics and most hadn’t played with Legos for the better part of a decade,” professor Casey Hare said.

For each match, two competitors began at opposite ends of a 4-foot-by-10-foot table, each facing left. They are measured to make sure they fit in the one-cubic-foot maximum size, and then are left to their own devices to pick up pieces of foam “cheese” for points.

“There are no remote controls,” Hare said. “The robots have their own brains, and they are going to do what the students programmed them to do, for better or for worse.”

In some cases, the robots decided to spin in circles endlessly or break into pieces, to the frustration of their creators. Others, such as the robot that won the tournament, had a bit better luck.

“There were some really good robots out there,” said engineering senior Michael Georgese, who came in first with team member Carlos Zing. “Ours just didn’t break.”

Georgese and Zing’s robot had a hanging device that, when activated by a piece of cheese, triggered an arm to lower and grab the item, bringing it back into a holding area.

The rules, although simple, are established and understood by all players. Cheese is arranged randomly, decided by a coin flip, around the arena table. Players count points based on both a color-coded system and a regional system.

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Each Logo robot earned points by picking up blocks of foam “cheese.” (Mollie Helmuth / Noozhawk photo)

Dark cheese retrieved on the player’s side is worth two points, light cheese retrieved on the raised middle platform or side platforms is worth three points and dark cheese on the opponent’s side is worth four points.

If a robot retrieves cheese and puts it on its own back wall, the move quadruples the score. 

Each match is timed at two minutes. In the event of a tie, each robot gets a one-minute independent session to determine who will move on. If two robots collide, players activate a micro switch mounted on top of the robot, causing them to pause for restart.

Georgese and Zing had a few close calls with their winning robot. They won in the quarterfinals with about a second to spare. “It’s like shooting a basketball at the buzzer,” Georgese said.

The students created their robots in stages, first putting together a moving car, then adding devices such as grabbing arms or rotating wheels to feed in the foam cheese.

“We’re teaching students to integrate electro-mechanic systems,” Hare said. “They have to solve a problem by building claws, writing software and interfacing electronics.”

Hare emphasized that the project isn’t about learning how to create Lego robots and said that the designing skills will be useful in a variety of engineering avenues.

Noozhawk intern Mollie Helmuth can be reached at