Robots built for decathlon events by Baltimore duo on Discovery Channel - Baltimore


May 24, 2013 10:30 am

Robots built for decathlon events by Baltimore duo on Discovery Channel

Challenge 4 of “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius,” a Discovery Channel engineering reality show with two locals, brought a new element into the competition: athleticism. This week, each team was tasked to design, build and deliver a robot that would compete in three decathlon events.

The BLUE team's robot design.

This is a guest post from Andrew Stroup, an entrepreneur and cast member of a new Discovery Channel show called "The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius" that highlights engineering talent.

Every Friday, Andrew Stroup and Corey Fleischer will recap the latest episode of “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius.” Stroup and Fleischer are the two Maryland contestants competing on the new Discovery Channel show that NOW airs Wednesdays at 7 p.m. Stroup and Fleischer hold weekly viewing parties starting at 6 p.m. at Luckie’s Tavern.

See last week’s summary here.

Episode 4 summary:

Challenge 4 of “The Big Brain Theory: Pure Genius” brought a new element into the competition: athleticism. This week, each team was tasked to design, build and deliver a robot that would compete in three decathlon events: the 100-meter dash, javelin throw and long jump. Each team had four days and $10,000 dollars to complete the task.

TL;DR: For this challenge, Corey was the BLUE team leader, and I was on his team. Dan, the leader of the losing RED team, was sent home. This adds Dan to the list of other eliminated competitors (see list below) in the running for the Wild Card, a chance to re-enter the competition and compete for $50,000 and a one-year contract at WET Design.

  • Episode 1: Joe Carvella (team captain)
  • Episode 2: Joel Ifill
  • Episode 3: Alison Wong (team captain)
  • Episode 4: Dan Moyers (team captain)

If you missed the episode, you can watch it here.

Episode 4 in-depth coverage (for those interested in the Blue Team’s design, and the behind-the-scenes “dirt”):

THE RULES: Like all the other challenges, there were rules TV land didn’t see:

  1. The robots had to be “untethered,” meaning controlled wirelessly.
  2. The jumping robot was allowed to “detach” itself from the main system, shedding up to 75 percent of its weight.
  3. Our minimum requirement was to beat the existing world records for the first (100-meter dash) and third challenge (long jump), and get as close to the current world record for the second challenge, the javelin throw (and do better than the other team, of course).

MY DESIGN: Honestly, I can’t even remember anymore, but clearly my design isn’t relevant as I’m not concerned with winning a challenge just yet (HINT: STRATEGY, see below).


BLUE TEAM: Since Corey was picked as the winner of the challenge, he had first dibs on his team. Both Corey and Dan picked up the two “robot” gurus, Eric and Gui, respectively. Corey then picked Tom, me and Joe, in that order. There was a method to Corey’s madness, as he knew certain people would be of higher or lesser value to Dan, playing into an extra layer of strategy (not the first time you’ll see this happen). More on this to come in the later challenges.

OUR DESIGN: After discussing ideas, feasibility and balancing our skill sets, our team came up with the following integrated design to complete each event using the following:

  1. 100-meter dash: kid go kart.
  2. Javelin throw: air cannon.
  3. Long jump: highly customized pneumatic cylinder. The entire design was controlled by RC receivers, linked into some impressive electrical work by Eric.

100-meter Dash: We found the kid go kart on Craigslist. Once we confirmed the deal over the phone, Tom drove out there and picked it up, owned by a dad and his kid (we told the kid to watch the show as his go kart was about to make history). We installed a 4.5HP DC electric motor (named “BAM,” aka Big Ass Motor) to increase torque off the line. Additionally, we tied in an electric actuator to the front axle for steering.

Javelin Throw: After debating between a pitching machine or air cannon (pneumatic), we went with the latter, leveraging my fluid power experience. Tom built a customized aluminum accumulator and I took care of the rest of the plumbing. Tom also designed a wad made from oiled plastic round stock to create a strong enough seal to maintain pressure against the javelin throughout the entire length of the tube.

Long Jump: This is where it gets crazy. Conversations led down a path of turning a cylinder upside down and using it to “jump.” The design required using a 6-inch bore, 36-inch stroke cylinder, drilling and tapping 4 ports on the back plate (and 4 holes on the other side to eliminate restrictive airflow), which connected to an accumulator. The aluminum accumulator was designed by me and custom built by Tom. I ensured the flow distribution would be balanced between the 4 ports.

Fun fact: we ended up naming our design “Thurbo,” to pay homage to the Conservation of H’s we experienced during Challenge 1.

FLUID POWER: This was the first episode I really got to implement some exciting fluid power designs that were well integrated into the final product with the support of the team. I’m overly pleased with the results and the designs wouldn’t have worked without the entire team’s input.

The jumping robot was the only system we didn’t test because we weren’t sure it was going to work and be reusable after fired. The design itself was constantly being designed, built, modified and calibrated throughout the entire four days. Although skeptical it was going to work, I had faith the fluid power design was there (in theory), but we’d only know on game day.

We actually had a 48-inch stroke cylinder in the shop we were planning to use, which was massive. After Joe did the numbers, if the system performed as expected, we would launch the robot over the sand pit, which we were told was not an option as it would damage the track (lame, I know).

TESTING: For the first time in the entire competition, we were able to test our designs in a relevant environment. I personally believe this was a combination of the producers realizing we’re never going to succeed without it and our constant complaining we needed it. Something not shown: on day three we were able to go out and test our javelin launchers. Joe and I took our test stand and were able to dial-in our air cannon for competition day.

COMPETITION: We hadn’t seen the RED team’s design until competition day, but when we saw it, we knew we weren’t going to win the 100-meter dash based on size and powertrain. However, we didn’t come to the party with the first event being our strongest. It’s easy to make a vehicle fast, but we spent more time really working out our designs for the javelin throw and long jump, which paid off.

NOTE: The reason why the jumping robot flew so perfectly level in the air was due to Joe’s meticulous calculations and center-of-gravity balancing on the chain hoist. It truly was an amazing site to watch and by far one of my proudest moments in the entire competition when it launched.

BEHIND THE SCENES: There was so much force applied to the jumping robot cylinder piston that the rod O-rings busted out of the front. Clearly we took the cylinder to the max and it got the job done.

ELIMINATION: Personally, I was shocked that Dan willingly stepped up and took full responsibility for his team’s failure. There are some unshown scenes where he was bull-headed about not answering other questions by the judges, but all in all, a fairly calm situation.

STRATEGY: Dan hits the nail on the head with my statement in Challenge 1 that in this competition, with the way it’s structured, the captain will and should almost always go down with the ship. Notice how they didn’t even show my design? I can’t even remember what it was becuase it was so boring, but I had no desire to win the design challenge (along with Tom), as the risk/reward benefit was too low.

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