Behind the Blast Doors, ’Bots Rule

Building 3424 on IIT’s Main Campus seems tame enough. Visitors enter through a revolving door, check in at the reception desk, and go their respective ways, perhaps to the Department of Mathematics and Science Education or to the wing that houses Shimer College. But for those on their way to the Illinois Tech Robotics (ITR) club, both the journey and its destination qualify for what might be described as a walk on the wild side.

After navigating a series of left and right turns, one arrives at a single metal door, normally secured by a combination lock. Once over the threshold, there is now a set of doors to enter. Painted bright blue and composed of steel two-inches thick, the doors feature a sign that warns of the presence of ionizing radiation. Christopher Jones (AE ’07), biomedical engineering doctoral student and ITR president, refers to them as the “blast doors.” That name is appropriate for two reasons. For one, the room was the site of the first industrial nuclear reactor, which was decommissioned in the mid-1970s. The other reason is that it is ITR’s workspace and sanctuary, where a tight-knit group of students have a good old time building robots, like a rock-and-roll robot that has garnered a best design award for two consecutive years in the AMD Jerry Sanders Creative Design Competition (JSDC).

Behind the Blast Doors, 'Bots Rule

The robot—named RMS Dick Roslund after one of the students—really is a rock-and-roll ’bot.

“The coolest thing about this robot is its mobility,” explains Jones. “The robot can go in any direction, at any time. Most robots have to move forward or backward like a car, or otherwise change the orientation of their frame in order to go in a different direction. Our robot can immediately strafe in any translational direction without steering the frame; we have separate controls that allow the driver to rotate the robot.”

Mecanum wheels, essentially a conventional wheel with rollers attached to its circumference at 45-degree angles to the wheel, allow the robot to translate without steering. The ITR robot’s human driver controls its movements using a PlayStation®2-style controller that is hooked up to a laptop computer that communicates with the ’bot via a wi-fi link.

The robot is also the King of Cool because it rocks out, literally. ITR had the only robot at the annual design competition, held March 13–14 at the University of Illinois Urbana–Champaign, that played music (fed from an MP3 player) and flashed blue lights, sometimes to a bass beat. This year’s event featured a tic-tac-toe game in which the robots had to move weighted, air-filled balloons into boxes. At one point, another team’s robot pushed ITR’s off a platform, so during the next round the ITR ’bot played the English band Chumbawamba’s hit, “I Get Knocked Down,” much to the enjoyment of referees and competitors alike.

“With four robots at a time, it gets pretty intense,” says Jones. “They held a demolition round at the end. That was fun to watch, but we kept our robot out of it!”

That’s understandable, since JSDC judge and engineering idol Grant Imahara from the Discovery Channel’s science series “MythBusters” selected ITR as the winner of the “Most Creative Design” award and even autographed the ’bot’s polycarbonate panel.

Any wonder that Imahara was perhaps influenced by the Chicago White Sox cap that the ITR robot sported throughout the competition?

Anatomy of an ITR Robot

Check out the Illinois Tech Robotics robot in action at the 2009 AMD Jerry Sanders Creative Design Competition at


  • 36-inches long, 24-inches wide, and 21.5-inches high
  • 130 pounds
  • Powered by two 12-volt batteries


  • Arm moves up and down by the use of a 2-inch bore, 8-inch stroke air cylinder on a three-way solenoid, allowing for multiple arm positions
  • Gripper opens and closes with a ½-inch bore, 4-inch stroke cylinder on a single solenoid, which allows only binary operation but prevents the gripper from popping balloons
  • System operates at 120 pounds of pressure per square inch
  • Powered by carbon dioxide stored in a 20-ounce tank


  • Four Computer-Integrated Manufacturing motors that run at 5,400 revolutions per minute and 321 watts
  • Four 16:1 BaneBots planetary transmissions
  • Four 883 Victor speed controllers from IFI Robotics
  • Four 8-inch Mecanum wheels


  • Linksys® 802.11b/g wireless router
  • PlayStation®2-style controller
  • Gumstix® robot computer
  • Linux operating system
  • C (general purpose) programming language utilizing 1,000+ lines of code


  • 20 feet of 1–1¼-inch galvanized steel tubing
  • Five feet of 1-inch aluminum tubing
  • Seven polycarbonate protective panels
  • Hoop-shaped arms, to grasp balloons used in the 2009 Jerry Sanders Creative Design Competition
  • Decals of Illinois Tech Robotics club sponsors, including the Chicago White Sox
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