NYU Tandon students ­triumph at global robotics competition

NYU team on winner's stage

A cross-institution team including NYU Tandon students took part in MBZIRC 2020 and achieved podium finishes in two of the three preliminary challenges and won first prize in the event’s culminating Grand Challenge.

The Mohamed Bin Zayed International Robotics Challenge (MBZIRC), a biennial event organized by Khalifa University that draws university teams from around the world to Abu Dhabi, involves a grueling — but fun — set of competitions aimed at highlighting the discipline’s transformative potential in such areas as disaster response, healthcare, domestic tasks, transport, space, manufacturing, and construction.

A team of NYU Tandon students that included Kshitij Jindal (M.S. in Mechatronics, Robotics, and Automation Engineering, ’20) and Anthony Wang, (M.S. in Mechanical Engineering, ’20) took part in MBZIRC 2020. Thanks in part to the guidance of Assistant Professor Giuseppe Loianno, who runs Tandon’s Agile Robotics and Perception Lab (ARPL), they smoked the 31 other finalist teams to rack up podium finishes in two of the three preliminary challenges and win first prize in the event’s culminating Grand Challenge.

They were joined in their efforts by Jueun Kwon, a high school student from Bergen County Academies who has done research in the ARPL, as well as by students from the University of Pennsylvania and Czech Technical University, comprising a cross-institution super-team of sorts.

MBZIRC 2020, which fielded more than 130 teams in its initial rounds, called upon unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, commonly called drones) and unmanned ground vehicles (UGVs) to demonstrate fast autonomous navigation (with no GPS) in dynamic environments, with reduced visibility and minimal prior knowledge on the part of their developers, among other important capabilities.

Challenge One, which ended with the Tandon participants and the rest of their team in second place, involved flying UAVs around the arena while navigating complex 3D trajectories and avoiding obstacles. Although it might sound like the stuff of video games, the exercise had a far more serious purpose: drones flying too close to airports or military installations pose obvious security risks, and Challenge One invited participants to think about how their own UAVs could track, intercept, and detain intruders autonomously.

In Challenge Two — which Jindal, Kwon, Wang and their teammates aced to land in first place — UAVs and a UGV collaborated to find, transport, and assemble various brick-shaped objects to build pre-defined structures. Again, the purpose was serious, since during disasters, autonomous vehicles must be able to remove debris or assemble components into useful tools.

Challenge Three required a team of UAVs and a UGV to cooperate in autonomously extinguishing a series of fires in an urban high rise building firefighting scenario.

The Grand Challenge, as the name implies, found the teams competing in a triathlon-type event that combined the activities of the previous three contests, and here the Tandon/Czech/Pennsylvania crew proved itself to be a juggernaut. There was much more than mere bragging rights or trophies at stake: the event’s coordinators had announced that the winners of each individual challenge would receive $250,000, and the grand challenge winner would be awarded $1,000, 000.

The prize money, while substantial, was only part of what made participating in MBZIRC so gratifying for Jindal, Kwon, and Wang. “We appreciated the chance to interact with people at Khalifa University, where the competition was held, and at NYU Abu Dhabi, where they made us welcome as we refined and tested our prototype before the actual event,” they said. “MBZIRC wrapped up with a multiday symposium that allowed us to showcase our work to industry representatives and international robotics and AI experts, so that was a wonderful opportunity as well. Above all, working with Professor Loianno was a privilege. We would certainly not have done as well as we did without him.”

''Robotics at NYU Tandon is a reality!” Loianno explained. “Students can have a complete and immersive robotics experience ranging from cutting-edge classes to research solutions addressing real-world problems.” He continued, “In Abu Dhabi the team exhibited great technical expertise as well as determination, spirit, and collaborative ability. They proved that the robotics frontier is wide open and ready to be explored by innovative, creative engineers.”


The team also expresses gratitude to

  • The members of ARPL
  • Vicky Davis, Professor Anthony Tzes, Nikolaos Giakoumidis, and Nikolaos Evangeliou of NYU Abu Dhabi