Schenectady County

Union students, robots to show skills on ice this weekend

Robots produced by teams of Union College engineering students will take to the ice during intermiss
Union College Mechatronics student Erik Skorina of Walla Walla, Washington, controls his robot in front of the net at Messa Rink Thursday.
Union College Mechatronics student Erik Skorina of Walla Walla, Washington, controls his robot in front of the net at Messa Rink Thursday.

Sal’s slapshot isn’t going to break any speed records, but it’s not half bad for a robot.

The remote-controlled contraption has an internal spring-loaded metal flap that can be pulled back, then released to propel a small hockey puck with decent velocity. Just the fact that Sal can take a slapshot places the small, box-like robot at a distinct advantage against the competition — none of which can propel the puck from the stationary position.

“It just spanks the puck,” beamed Connor Owen, a Union College senior who helped design “Sal” with fellow senior Chris Mulford.

Sal and three other robots produced by teams of engineering students will take to the ice during intermission at this weekend’s inaugural Mayor’s Cup men’s hockey game between Union and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute at the Times Union Center on Saturday. Each robot will have 20 seconds to move a four-ounce puck from the face-off circle to a hockey net guarded by the other team’s robot.

Robots aren’t allowed to make contact unless the attacking one travels into the crease. And those robots unable to shoot the puck will have to try to power it past their opponents.

The idea is to exhibit some of the work being done by engineering students to a broader audience, explained Ronald Bucinell, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Union. With thousands expected to watch the Mayor’s Cup, the first on-ice robot shootout competition is sure to get a decent audience.

“This was a perfect opportunity to get engineering students and their academic accomplishments out in front of people who normally wouldn’t go to an engineering competition,” Bucinell said. “We hope it also inspires young people to consider careers in engineering.”

The competition was originally meant to pit robots produced by Union students against those crafted by their counterparts at RPI. But different academic schedules meant RPI’s robots weren’t done in time for the game, leaving the Union students to compete against themselves.

Creating the robots was no easy task. Aside from crafting a mechanism to shoot the puck, the students also had to devise a way to navigate their creations along the slippery ice surface, which is a tall order for a remote-controlled box that weighs up to 20 pounds.

On defense, the robots also needed to have a method for blocking shots. In many cases, this meant building retractable arms that could extend far beyond the 18-inch maximum width of the robots.

At least one of the robots also anticipates the contact often associated with ice hockey. The creation called “Gretzky 9000” was designed like a wedge, so that it can power through any robot guarding the goalie’s crease and merely push it aside.

The robotic Great One is also designed with quarter-inch-thick spiked metal wheels, which cut into the ice surface and give the device good traction. In a sense, the Gretzky 9000 is the power forward among the robots.

“None of these other robots can stop us,” said senior Zach Reinert, who devised the creation with classmates Jason Hargreaves and Erik Skorina.

But unlike its namesake, the Gretzky 9000 can’t shoot the puck. That means the trio will need to rely on its brute strength to score goals.

“You could call it sort of a bulldozer,” Hargreaves said.

Sal’s creators bristled a bit about the bruiser they’re sure to face this weekend, since their robot’s retractable arms didn’t seem to pose much of an obstacle to the Gretzky 9000 making a fast break for the net. But they’re hoping a few slick shots from a few steps in off the face-off circle will allow Sal to emerge victorious.

“Competitively, we’ve got the best shot in the league,” Owen said.

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