Annual Tech Competition Launches Robots and Friendships

Video by Craig BonheurPhoto by Grace Adams Ward '24

Less than a week before Vassar’s annual Autonomous Robot Design Competition was scheduled to be held, Rommel Lantajo ’24, Kai Yung ’23, and Rebecca Torres ’24 had a serious problem: The robot they had built for the event—dubbed Emmett, a tribute to a beloved character in The Lego Movie—was failing miserably when asked to chase and capture a robotic “turtle” that had been programmed to wander randomly on a rectangular surface.

“I think we broke about five electronic motors,” Lantajo said.

“We never knew from one day to the next what parts of the robot would work and what parts wouldn’t,” said Yung.

“We felt like we were cursed,” Torres added.

But when the competition began before about 75 spectators in the Villard Room on May 8, Emmett responded like a champ, defeating robots designed and built by four other teams of students enrolled in Assistant Professor Joshua de Leeuw’s Cognitive Science 320 class. Not counting one failed attempt, which they were allowed by the rules of the competition to drop from their score, the plucky little robot captured the “turtle” in its other three attempts in a total of 34 seconds.


De Leeuw said the students were given minimal instructions on how to build their machines. “We gave them some simple motors, but they wrote the software and assembled the hardware using all their own designs,” he said.

Emmett’s creators hadn’t known each other until they were thrown together as a team, “but we’re all close friends now,” Torres said. 

Robots and Friendships Competition Winners
The winners: Left to right: Rebecca Torres ’24, Kai Yung (holding Emmett), and Rommel Latajo ’24. 

And while competition among the five teams was fierce, some camaraderie among members of opposing teams blossomed as they struggled to build their robots throughout the semester. “It was fun to win the competition, but we all helped each other when we ran into problems,” Yung said. “Members of other teams helped us, even loaning us some parts for Emmett sometimes.”

Watching Emmett grow from an idea to a working, autonomous turtle catcher—a process members of Team Emmett said took about 75 hours of trial-and-error sessions—made the robot’s creators feel almost like parents, Lantajo said. “Like all kids, Emmett can be frustrating at times,” he said, “but he’s special and we love him.”

May 17, 2023