March 26, 2019

Man or machine? Final Four contest to pit basketball-shooting robotics teams, with winner facing NBA great


WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. — One thing is certain about this year's Final Four in Minneapolis: Purdue will be there in robot form.

It's all part of Bot Shot, a robotics competition sponsored by Land O'Lakes, which is headquartered in Minnesota, where the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four will take place. On April 7, four universities will compete with their robots in a basketball skills contest with two parts: sinking the most baskets from five spots on the court, followed by an old-fashioned game of H-O-R-S-E.  Purdue has earned a spot in the Final Four, along with the universities of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and South Dakota State University. The winning team gains a $10,000 cash prize and also gets to face NBA Hall of Famer David Robinson in an epic human vs. robot challenge.

"Tossing a basketball into a hoop sounds simple," said Michael Linnes, the team's faculty adviser. "But the systems we had to create are incredibly complex."

"There were a million things we could do," said Zoey Osterloh, a sophomore in mechanical engineering. "But we had to decide which method was most accurate, and importantly, most consistent."

There are several steps that the robot needs to complete within 60 seconds. It is first driven up to a rack of basketballs where its feeder arm in the rear of the machine intakes the ball from the rack. The ball then rolls down a ramp, where it is fed to a lift mechanism. After the robot is “loaded,” it is aimed using onboard cameras and LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to autonomously determine the correct angle and speed that it needs to make a basket. When the proper shooting speed and angle are reached, a feeder arm raises the ball toward the shooting wheels, centering it perfectly. The shooting wheels, spinning fast and covered in a high-friction material, propel the basketball toward the hoop. Purdue's team has integrated all of these steps into a fine-tuned robot, which they are calling the BoilerBot Special. A YouTube video is available here. Information about the contest is available here.

"Our team needed students from many different disciplines," Linnes said. "Students from First Year Engineering and Mechanical Engineering helped to build the physical systems with input from the rest of the team. They also worked with students from Electrical Engineering and Computer Science to design the control systems for the drive train, onboard sensors, and the shooting motors." The team also benefited from the expertise of Steve Florence, Purdue ME's technical services manager, who has a workshop for West Lafayette's FIRST Robotics teams.

“We started a month behind all of the other teams," Linnes said, "but we were able to catch up and surpass them, thanks to our team's hard work and the strong support of Mr. Florence." 

The BoilerBot Special has a greater than 90 percent free-throw percentage and can make three-pointers with an accuracy that surpasses even the best NBA player. It can even make crazy trick shots, such as shooting from behind the backboard. While the team hasn’t figured out how to make it pass the ball yet, and its rolling layup needs some improvement, they are optimistic at their chances for the $10,000 prize.  

"I'm really passionate about robotics," Osterloh said. 

"It's a really interesting competition, and the fact these robots can play a sport that humans can play, I think that's really cool."

Media contact: Brian Huchel, 765-494-2084, bhuchel@purdue.edu 

Source: Michael Linnes, mlinnes@purdue.edu

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