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Palin, Biden bots stage showdown of their own

Student-made punching bots duke it out on the Washington University campus as the vice presidential candidates ready for the big debate inside.

Washington University punching bots
Washington University engineering student Lee Cordova (left) looks on as his punching bots, posing as the vice presidential candidates, fight it out. Karren Knowlton

Joe Biden and Sarah Palin weren't the only ones duking it out on Washington University's campus last week. So were two punching robots created by engineering students at the school and appropriately marked for the occasion with photos of the VP candidates affixed to their steel heads.

The bots, which are made of machine parts, did battle on the main courtyard of the St. Louis campus for about six hours Thursday as the candidates prepped for the much-anticipated faceoff inside. Not to be left out, the presidential candidates got a swing, too, with John McCain and Barack Obama's mugs getting swapped in and attached to the heads with magnets for matches of their own.

Students took turns manning the red and blue robots, whose arms operate via pulleys attached to straps. Two cables connect to a control bar, which can be pointed back and forth to make the bot move right and left. A good punch to the opponent's chest causes its spring-loaded head to fall off, which nets the aggressor a point.

"Someone complained that there were no third-party candidates," said Lee Cordova, an undergraduate in biomedical engineering who built the bots with fellow engineering undergrads Matt Watkins and Sam Wight.

Palin punching bot
Karren Knowlton

Cordova was quick to point out that the 1 1/2-year-old red and blue bots had recently been retrofitted to make them more equal in capability, ensuring, in essence, a non-partisan pairing. Nonetheless, "we actually kept track and the blue did a little better than the red," (the blue, naturally, being Biden), Cordova reported.

Cordova said last week's VP debate marked the first political battle for the rock-'em sock-'em robot toys, which have appeared at an annual spring festival on campus and also make their rounds at local schools as part of an engineering outreach by the creators.

"Little kids love to play with them," Cordova said. "I think we inspire new engineers."

The bots will not be making the trek to Nashville's Belmont University for Tuesday's second presidential debate (be sure to catch CBS News' live Webcast on our site), and are instead getting some much-needed rest after last week's melee.

"They're back in the engineering school," Cordova said. "We were pleasantly surprised nothing broke or wore down."