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Clash of the bots: Illini robotics team to host college, high school competitions

Feb. 8—CHAMPAIGN — Around the world, VEX robotics teams have spent the last few months creating bots to face off in this year's challenge. The Illini VEX team had an additional challenge: organizing this year's local competition.

This is only the second year for the Cornfield Clash Tournament hosted on the University of Illinois campus, but the team is already pushing to make it bigger.

Last year, they hosted ten college teams. This year, there will also be 30 high school teams entering a second day of competition.

"We're trying to inspire these kids and to show what it is to be a future Illini engineer or any other major," said this year's president, brain and cognitive science major Anes Kim.

Illini VEX got into the hosting game early, but that was part of the plan from the beginning.

The group has only existed since 2021, when students interested in continuing their involvement with VEX after high school put it together.

"What it would do is it would bring the community out there," co-founder and material science and engineering major Husain Badri said of his experience with competitions in high school.

"It would bring the community to learn about STEM, it would bring everyone else from school and have them get a chance to see what we do, what type of robotics we do. That was one of my goals, to host a robotics tournament here."

Badri said that with how prevalent robotics are at UI, it only made sense to find a way to show that off.

By starting a registered student organization with structured leadership, the co-founders could get funding to build bots and make sure the group would continue after they graduate.

VEX competitions like the Cornfield Clash are different from the events put on by similar groups at UI such as Robobrawl.

Rather than pitting bots against each other in some form of combat, the teams are tasked with designing robots that can complete a certain challenge the most efficiently.

The challenge changes each year based on designs by the national VEX organization, so every year is a brand new project for the teams.

The game manual including the challenge comes out around a month after each world championship, so some teams could start building over the summer, but most college groups wait until the start of the new semester.

High school competitions start around December, while college competitions usually start into the new year.

"A lot of teams do many rebuilds, so they build the robot and then they'll build a completely new robot to improve it. It's like an iterative process," said Illini VEX vice-president and computer science major Praveen Kalva.

Last year's challenge was a bit like frisbee golf, requiring the robots to shoot discs into an elevated basket, though the confined court made it similar to basketball, too.

This year's "Over Under" game could be compared more easily to soccer, but the real challenge is that the "goals" are low to the ground and the "balls" are shaped more like rounded pyramids or acorns — they don't roll.

Bots will need to be able to lift up these "triballs" to move them around and under a barrier into their goals and even steal out of their opponents' goals.

As the match comes to an end, each team can earn additional points by having their bots lift themselves off of the ground via vertical poles near the center of the court, bringing the "Over" part of the title into play.

High school groups each build one bot, then each teams up with another school to compete; college groups have the increased challenge of building two bots.

College groups can qualify for the world championship if they're successful at the Cornfield Clash.

They'll be competing this Saturday in the Siebel Center for Design, but Kim says Sunday's high school competition in the Campus Instructional Facility will be the big one.

Both days are scheduled 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. and are free for audience members.

Everything will be livestreamed on the big screen so everyone can see the action.

"I think it'll be a cool experience. Obviously, this is only our second year so we can't pinpoint, 'it's going to be exactly like this," Kim said. "But we're really excited about the work we put into this."