Robotic egg race

In Aberystwyth Robotics Club we have a series of special events – pumpkin hack in late October, Christmas Card Circuits in December, Beach lab (robots on the prom) in June/July … These are outreach events designed to get people who don’t come to the regular weekly after-school clubs to have a go at building stuff.

Some time back, due to workload and other stuff, I stepped back from the weekly after school club and now I concentrate on running these “specials”. As a new one this year, for Easter, we decided to do something egg-citing and run a robot egg race. This blog post summarises our process for setting this up – from planning through setup to evaluation.

Planning the event and running a pilot

The idea was to use lego robots, string, drainpipes, and pretty much anything else we could lay our hands on, to take an egg around Old College. We’re very lucky to have access to Old College, which has balconies, ramps, stairs, multiple rooms, and all sorts of furniture we’re able to shift around. Back in January we had a planning meeting one Sunday afternoon, and thought about the space then tried to make robots ourselves that could do the right kind of thing. The general idea was to have a series of stages – some easier than others – with each stage starting and finishing on a piece of carpet. When you’re on the carpet you can move the egg from one robot to the next. This meant that the robots had to be able to perform the moving of the egg but not the handing over of the egg (simplifying the task considerably).

The original plan

Thinking about the space we came up with a plan., which was basically a list of different challenges for our robotics teams to solve.

  1. Across a gap between tables
  2. Up a ramp and down some stairs
  3. Up a few stairs and around a corner
  4. Across the flat (with a bit of a slalom)
  5. Up to the balcony
  6. Down the stairs

Our robots – created during the planning session – were able to deal with versions of these challenges. “Up a ramp and down a stair” was I think the most complex robot we built – it had an egg-holder with a winch so when it got to the top of the ramp it could let the egg down gently.

A careful winch-based egg robot

The day before – risk assessment and setup

SO at this stage, we had a plan and a rough idea of how it might work out. Fast forward to Easter and we arrive in the venue the day before to walk the route and to do a risk assessment. It was at this stage that we considered some excellent advice from Amanda Clare and decided that “down the stairs” was probably not a sensible challenge to give groups of kids. The chances of people running to catch dropped eggs was not something we wanted to risk, so we amended that one to “down a drainpipe from a table”. We set up a few more “slalom across the flat” missions as there were quite a few very young kids registered, and we added a “parachute down from the balcony” one at the last minute because who doesn’t like throwing eggs off balconies?

We set up a rough idea of the layout, and made sure we had some safety tape to mark out the areas where we’d be throwing eggs off of balconies and winching things up. At this point, we were ready to go.

On the day

On the day we had about 25 kids and some assorted adults show up. Some of the kids formed natural teams, and others took a bit of persuading to join forces with strangers, but everyone got into a team pretty quickly. We walked the course to start, as a group, and teams chose the challenges they wanted to tackle. There were a few teams where we steered them towards particular problems – a couple of teenage brothers wanted to work together and seemed pretty technically able so we set them the hardest challenge of “up some steps and around a corner”, and we set the two youngest groups on the “slalom across the flat” challenges.

across a gap between some tables involved a cable-car type arrangement with pulleys and a stationary robotic engine

Each team was given a creme egg for testing, and they set about building their contraptions. It’s fascinating to see the different techniques people choose to use; very few of the solutions invented on the day matched those we’d come up with during our pilot session. In particular the “down a couple of stairs” one where our experienced roboteers created as a careful winch-based system, ended up being a robust egg case on a robot which just drove off the edge of the steps and self-destructed. I think the kids version was more fun, if less re-usable.

A very narrow robot for going down a drainpipe

Once everyone had tested their own section of the course thoroughly we had a full circuit with just one creme egg, handing over between robots on carpet squares. One of the great things about the day was the way that all the kids (and parents) were invested in the job of getting the egg around. This meant that even when it wasn’t their robot they were all rooting for the other teams and it was not in any sense a competitive event.

One of the slalom robots

Once we’d been all the way around with a creme egg it was time for the final test. This involved a hard-boiled egg. We did have some non-hard-boiled-eggs too but decided to leave them in the carton – the next picture will probably make it clear why!

We (nearly) got a real egg around unscathed

So how did it go?

This was a very well received workshop. Everyone was invested in getting the egg around the obstacle course, and we managed it, nearly. All of the feedback we had was positive, and we’ve been asked to run the workshop or something similar at a local school. If you have some lego robot kit it’d be a fairly easy event to replicate.

Running it yourself

If you want to try and do this in your area it should be pretty straightforwards to organise. Be sure to have an idea of the ages of kids turning up so you can make easy challenges for younger kids and harder ones for older kids, and be sure to think about possible hazards like falling eggs and running on stairs. Here’s a kit list:

  • Lego Mindstorms Robotic kits, one per team
  • Android tablets (to control the robots)
  • Lots of string
  • Pipecleaners, pompoms, cotton balls – various bits and pieces to enable the construction of egg-friendly carriages
  • Retort stands to attach things to
  • Pulleys
  • Squares of carpet to act as the start and end points of each stage
  • Tape to affix the carpet to the floor
  • Various tables, pipes, traffic cones and other things to use to create an obstacle course
  • Googly eyes because you always need these
Slaloming around some traffic cones

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