Engineering student’s ‘cool’ robot takes top prize in Sun competition

By David Pescovitz


man and robot

Engiineering student Anthony Levandowski spent some 250 hours building and programming his prize-winning BillSortBot robot, winner of the 2001 Sun/Java contest.
Peg Skorpinski photo

07 November 2001 | Undergraduate Anthony Levandowski always knew his childhood passion for Legos would someday pay off. The third-year student in the Department of Industrial Engineering and Operations Research recently led his classmates to gold at the inaugural Java Technology Lego MindStorms Challenge, a Sun Microsystems-sponsored contest open to Bay Area universities.

The Berkeley contingent’s winning entry was an amalgamation of plastic Legos and silicon chips, dubbed BillSortBot, a petite robot whose sole function is to sort Monopoly money.

The aim of the contest was to build an “innovative, cool robot” using a single Lego MindStorms Robotics Invention System kit, programmed in Sun’s Java computer language. The 717-piece Lego kit consists of traditional Lego bricks and gears, along with a pair of motors, touch sensor, light sensor, batteries and a small microprocessor.

Ingenuity, design, parsimony and robustness were four factors the judges considered. But it was the fifth factor — charm — that led to BillSortBot’s winning Muppet-like mug.

“Adding the purple antennas and large eyes gave it a little bit of character,” said Levandowski, who along with his teammates was enrolled in an introductory robot design and programming course taught by Professor Emeritus Roger Glassey of industrial engineering.

Competition from the two other universities accepting the challenge was fierce. UC Santa Cruz’s SlugBot plunked out melodies on an electronic piano, while Stanford’s Maze-Bot scanned paper mazes and traced out solutions. But the BillSortBot played tough, earning its creators the grand prizes — leather jackets emblazoned with the Java logo and “Java-enabled” golf putters with a microprocessor to analyze your swing and enable you to compete in online putting tournaments.

When loaded with a pile of Monopoly money, BillSortBot peels bills one at a time from the stack, using its light sensor to determine the color of the money by measuring the intensity of the light reflected off the paper. If the bill is the color the user has instructed the robot to sort out, it is spit into one bin. All other colors drop into another bin.

“We didn’t want to create a problem and then make a robot that would just solve that problem,” said Levandowski. “Most robots out there are just for entertainment, but we wanted to solve a real problem.”

While Levandowski admits that piles of mixed up Monopoly money may not be a pressing concern for most, it does illustrate an ongoing challenge in industrial engineering — sorting parts on assembly lines.

“Many engineers have spent a career working on this problem, and anyone who has experienced paper jams in a printer or copier can appreciate its difficulty,” said Glassey, Levandowski’s faculty adviser.

Levandowski, who used just 300 Lego pieces to create his robot, plans to enter his robot in future MindStorms competitions. In the meantime, BillSortBot loyally cranks out cash whenever Levandowski grabs the game board.

“I was just in Italy and the family I stayed with played Monopoly,” said Levandowski. “I showed BillSortBot to them, and they were impressed that this was the kind of research I get to perform in college.”


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