NEW YORK CITY—Say what you will about speed and power—it was TaeTay’s elegant spin moves that allowed the shoebox-size robot to slam its way to victory at the robot sumo tournament here in New York City at The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art. Each time the robot sensed the edge of the ring it would quickly pivot like a top, putting its fanged front end in position to use its opponent’s momentum against it.

TaeTay’s victory Monday night culminated the 14 weeks when undergrad students in professor Brian Cusack’s spring mechatronics class built robots from scratch to compete in his 10th annual end-of-semester throwdown. To win a match these autonomous robots must push their opponents out of a ring—a square a couple of meters on each side—without leaving the ring itself. The robots use sensors to identify the ring’s edge based on the boundary’s color, and respond according to their programming. Some spin, for example, whereas others back up the way they came.

Early in the semester the class splits into eight teams of three students, each of whom must work together to design, build and program a robot that can locate and engage an opponent on the sumo mat. All of the robots fight in the same weight class—under 2.3 kilograms—and their dimensions cannot exceed roughly 25 centimeters in width or length and 15 centimeters in height. Each robot must cost less than $200 including its motors, controllers and sensors.

“The students have to decide what’s best for them based on the money they have to spend,” says Cusack, an adjunct professor of mechanical engineering at Cooper Union, a college in lower Manhattan that specializes in art, architecture and engineering education for undergrads and graduate students. For example, they have to determine things like the size of the motor, whether they want to use treads or tires and their method of attack. One of the more common approaches is to build a wedge and try to get under the other robot, although another tactic is to simply shove the opponent out using brute force.

Cusack admits that his goal is not to advance the sport of robot sumo, which has an international following and is featured as part of the annual RoboGames tournament. Rather, “robot sumo enhances my ability to teach my class,” he says. The robots are a way to drive home the fundamentals of digital logic, computer architecture, embedded controller programing, systems engineering and project management that Cusack teaches, he adds. His first experience with battling robots was in 2002 when he built a two-meter-diameter spiderlike robot as part of his Cooper Union master’s thesis and tried to compete on the popular BattleBots television program. Although his eight-legged contraption—which featured four actuators in each leg—never actually made it to the ring, Cusack saw the value that such a competition brings to the learning process.

Prior to Monday night’s competition, Cusack pointed out, the robot that usually wins is “the one that malfunctions the least.” He also noted that team TaeTay completed their robot with one week to spare, and that the robot worked the first time they turned it on. No mean feat considering Cusack makes his students build all of the electronics themselves from the microcontrollers, sensors and other basic components he supplies. He adds, “The fact that they have to go through quite a gauntlet of education just to get anything to work is the most challenging part.”