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Engineering students from the University of Tennessee-Knoxville hope an eight-inch, robotic car will carry them to victory in a regional competition next month.

The Institute for Electronics and Electrical Engineers is sponsoring the March 27 contest at its annual convention at the University of Kentucky. Fifteen to 18 universities in the Southeast are expected to participate.

Reece Bain, UT-Knoxville senior and team leader, said the tiny vehicle will have to complete an obstacle course relying solely on functions programmed by students.

The course, designed to represent different parts of the Kentucky landscape, includes traveling through simulations of a dark coal mine, a horse track, and up a hillside.

“The robot car is controlled by a microprocessor, and it must sense all these obstacles without our intervention,” Bain said. “Programming it to do that, especially in the dark, is challenging.”

Dr. Michael Roberts, UT-Knoxville electrical engineering professor and adviser of the seven-member team, said $2,500 in prize money will be awarded. The real value for the students is the educational experience, he said.

“They learn the value of working on a team and the practical application their coursework,” Roberts said. “Also, the contest is fun, and it exposes them to a good professional organization in the IEEE.

“These are important things which they do not get in a normal classroom experience.”