Y-Prize-winning robot acquaints students with STEM fields

The Y-Prize—an invention and business plan competition sponsored by the Wharton School’s Mack Institute for Innovation Management and the School of Engineering and Applied Science—culminated with a win for a robot designed to introduce students to engineering concepts.

Emily Plumb, a graduate student in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, led this year’s grand finale-winning team, which included engineering consultant Gavin Kenneally, also a mechanical engineering graduate student, and business consultant Isabelle Park, an entrepreneurial management graduate student at Wharton, took home $5,000 in seed money and the opportunity to pitch their product to IPGroup, a British intellectual property commercialization company.

The contest’s name is a riff on the “X-Prize,” which challenges inventors to develop technology to solve some ambitious problem, such as landing a rover on the moon. Conversely, the Y-Prize starts with the technology and asks participants to brainstorm problems that can be solved with it.

In this case, contestants could choose from three robots developed by Penn Engineering’s GRASP Lab: flying quadrotors, an all-terrain hexapod called RHex, and a modular, reconfigurable robotic system known as ckBot. Teams from around the University proposed and refined their ideas for using these robots over the course of the spring semester, with the top four presenting their pitches to a panel of tech industry judges at the grand finale in April.    

The winning proposal, called TRHex, is a variant of the ground-pounding robot, designed for use in the classroom. With swappable legs and an intuitive, hands-on way to program the robot’s gait, TRHex’s accompanying curricula would be suited as an introduction to a variety of STEM fields.  

“The ease of programming the robot is crucial,” Plumb says. “The basic robot will actually come with the gaits pre-programmed and add-ons will help learning. The robot also has interchangeable legs made of different materials to help students understand friction and of different geometries—for example, why is a C-shaped leg better than a rod or an S shaped leg?"

Through experimenting with the number of legs, leg geometry, leg materials, and gait, Plumb says students can begin to decipher the best combinations for moving the robots across different terrains, such as carpet, ice, or rocks, or up different inclines.

Along with experimenting with different legs and surfaces, programming TRHex is a hands-on affair.

“The main difference that makes TRHex so user-friendly is that gaits can be programmed physically instead of using a computer,” Kenneally says. “To do this, you move all the robot's legs to a certain pose, press the record button, move the legs to a second pose, and press the record button again. The robot will then alternate moving between the two poses, resulting in a wide variety of running gaits, turning gaits, or even the robot flipping itself over.”

The three runners-up—Agribots, Inc., EyeFly, and RautoBot—each received $1,000.