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Sumo Wrestling Is Better With Robots

Cooper Union students flexed their mechanical engineering muscle by designing battle-worthy robots.

Monday night, I saw a robot named Taetay beat another robot named PigBot to win a sumo wrestling tournament.

I know, it sounds weird—sumo wrestling in New York?—but for the male and female undergraduates of Professor Brian Cusack's Cooper Union mechanical engineering class, the night was the culmination of a 15-week sprint to design and build their own robots.

And while the tournament itself, said Cusack, is obviously a little whimsical, the skills the students acquire along the way will serve them well as they consider grad school or applying for organizations like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and, yes, the National Security Agency.

"I've been interviewed by more US Marshals than I have toes and fingers," Cusack joked to Motherboard. "They're exactly the kind of students you want going off and being smart about those kinds of things."

The evening's battle arena. Image: Nicholas Deleon/Motherboard

The tournament itself, held inside a Cooper Union auditorium in Manhattan's East Village, was a cataclysm of rubber and steel, with two teams of three lining up their robots on opposite sides of a "ring," flipping a switch, then seeing their robots race toward each other. Being sumo, the goal of each match was to push the opposing robot outside of the ring.

Picture the old TV show Battle Bots, with the possible difference being the simpler design of the students' robots.

Tay Tay up close. Image: Nicholas Deleon/Motherboard

As for the winning team, Taetay? The speedy little robot, by far the fastest of the eight teams' designs, easily swept aside its competition—literally. Not even PigBot, a hulking tank that excelled at not budging an inch, was able to resist fierce Taetay's wedges.

Said Jessie Wu, one of Taetay's mad scientists: "Our robot does a very good job of just the basics of pushing and staying within the ring, giving us an advantage."

Brian Cusack, the professor of the mechanical engineering class, ended the night with a bit of wisdom for future students.

"The winner isn't usually the best designed," he said. "It's usually really well designed, but it's the most consistently working robot" that wins. Besides, he joked, "I'd rather be lucky than talented!"