Can Virginia Tech engineering students build a better robot than rivals from Georgia Tech? On Friday, April 18, at 9 p.m. that question will be answered when teams from the two schools compete during the debut episode of "Robot Rivals" on cable's Do It Yourself (DIY) network.

The 13-part series, which will culminate later this year in a championship competition, challenges teams from the nation's leading engineering schools to create robots from a warehouse full of parts and gadgets. Among the roster of "Robot Rivals" competitors are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Purdue University, Clemson University and the University of California-Berkeley.

In addition to competing in the first episode to be aired, the Virginia Tech team was chosen to compete against students from the University of Tennessee for the show's pilot. DIY, the sister channel of HGTV and the Food Network, created "Robot Rivals" as the "ultimate how-to project," said Bill Sykes, DIY's vice president of programming.

The two teams competing during each show are given a specific challenge. The teams in the Virginia Tech/Georgia Tech competition, which was taped in November 2002, were assigned the task of building remote-control soccer-playing robots.

"Our goal was to design and construct the robot that could score the most goals," said Chris Terwelp, a Virginia Tech mechanical engineering (ME) graduate student who will receive his master's degree in May. Terwelp, fellow M.S. student Graham Henihaw and ME senior Ian Hovey (who graduated in December 2002) had eight hours to sort through hundreds of parts, come up with a workable design and construct their robot.

The team was given instructions for the challenge a week before taping began at DIY headquarters in Knoxville, Tennessee. "Having a week to think about it was a double-edged sword," Terwelp commented. "We came up with construction ideas before the competition, but then the parts we had to actually use weren't necessarily what we had imagined."

One surprise was an old Singer sewing machine. "Every challenge in the series has a surprise household item for the teams to try to use," Terwelp said. "We ended up using several items off the sewing machine, including gears and switches."

While Henihaw and Hovey worked on the mechanics of the robot, Terwelp wrote the computer software that would make it work. DIY supplied the teams with standard wireless transmitter and computing devices. The network also assigned a robotics consultant to each team.

"Those eight hours went by quickly," Terwelp said. "The most difficult challenges were surveying all the parts available in the warehouse and then getting organized within the time limit."

Charles Reinholtz, Virginia Tech ME professor and the team's advisor, said that this type of "single-session design" is an excellent practice for students because it's becoming more common in professional engineering. "Good design often happens under pressure," Reinholtz noted. "Design on deadline is happening more and more in industry and research."

At the end of eight hours the Virginia Tech team had created a remote-control robot that could pick up a soccer ball and shoot it at a high velocity through a goal.

"The hands-on projects we've been part of at Virginia Tech were the best preparation we could have had for this kind of challenge," Terwelp said. In 2002 Terwelp and Hovey were part of a student team that developed a remote-control excavator being used at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dahlgren, Virginia, to remove buried military ordnance.

To find out if the Hokies beat the Yellow Jackets, tune in April 18.

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