By Missy Harris
It started out slowly, with testing and retesting, reworking of sensors, adjusting code. In the couple of hours before the Micom Car Rally and during prelims, the student competitors reprogrammed furiously to ensure their cars literally stayed on track the whole way round. Unfortunately for some, that remained a problem.
The big race, set up in the Exhibit Hall at DevCon 2012, was Tuesday night’s main attraction. It had all the lights, camera, action and drama you would expect from any high stakes racetrack, just with smaller, robotic cars (powered by Renesas Car Rally Kits), and lacking human drivers. The rally’s competitors were all young: college seniors, juniors and even freshmen. And for many, this was their first competition of any kind. There were four teams in the race: two teams from Cal State, one from UCLA and one from California State University, Los Angeles. And the crowd was rooting for all of them.
The track was set up in loops and curves, with even a bridge and starting gates, and most importantly, a white line down the middle that attracted the sensors and was designed to keep the robot cars on course. At first, with all the lights shining down and reflecting onto the track, the cars were “confused” and would run right off the track, at the very first turn. But soon this issue was figured out: overhead lights were dimmed, the high powered camera lights kept low…and they were off!
UCLA took the lead from the start with the fastest time, and for many rounds, were the only ones able to stay the course. But after several preliminary rounds, after many furrowed brows and numerous adjustments, one of the Cal State teams’ cars stayed on course throughout, and gave UCLA a run for its money.
The packed crowd of engineers was charmed by the robots and the students’ efforts (perhaps seeing their younger selves in the competitors?) and voiced its heartfelt desire to see all of the competitors do well. There were groans of disappointment when a car would stop or go off course, and pure excitement and cheers when there was success.
Dr. Castillo, Assistant Professor and Credential Advisor at California State University, Los Angeles, knew how much work went into building his team’s car, and what it took for them to get to this point: “They only started in late September, and had just three or four work weeks to compete. But there has been a lot of work and dedication ever since-after school, nights, weekends. The ‘Aha Moment’ for them was when, last night, they could say, ‘Wow, we made it work.’ That’s a win-win already for them. Of course, if we get the other prize, why not? But they are freshmen, and just to see their faces last night, to see their car working…no one can take that away from them.”
In the end, UCLA beat Cal State in a run-off match and took their victory (and $500 prize) in demure and low-key stride. For them, this race proved that their hard work did indeed pay off. But last night, all of the students involved learned that working hard at something, and applying critical thinking to problem solve, will get you, and your car, moving forward.