The gnarly sounding experiment involves two robots: the “prey” which has sensors all around to enhance peripheral vision, like a fly with numerous eyes; and the “predator” which was built to concentrate vision up front, like a wolf.

The prey is taught to run from the closest object. The predator is programmed to chase. And the two robots battle.

“The idea is for the students to develop problem solving skills, methods of learning that can be used in different robots and in different environments,” Parker says. “I try to let students be creative.”

Abracadabra is sturdy and rugged. It would make a terrific predator. The bulkiness of Proft’s robot, though, belies its intricacies. These complexities mean that when the machine misbehaves (malfunctions) it’s difficult to debug and figure out the hitch in its giddy-up.

“The hard thing about robotics is that when debugging there are more variables to check when something goes wrong. When programing software it’s most likely your code and not your computer. With a robot it could be software or hardware—something as simple as forgetting to plug in a wire can prevent the entire robot from working,” she said.

“It can be frustrating when you have to check all these little components just to find that ‘one’ missing thing.”

Despite these frustrations, like when she’s trying to compute the machine to manipulate the tether, and it just won’t work, Proft is happy with how her robot turned out, the first she’s ever constructed.

“You kind of have that love-hate relationship with your creation, but the first time I flipped on the on-switch and it actually worked, that was amazing.

“To be able to make these creations and have them work and especially ones that can help people, it’s the best feeling in the world.

“It’s what drives those of us in the field of computer science to innovate,” she says.

June 8, 2016