by Quinn Norton
Robotics Community Descends on San Francisco
This past weekend, our nascent robot masters descended on San Francisco State University to compete in the 2005 RoboGames. They came as 350-pound combat robots, dripping with skulls and jagged spinning wheels; as matchbox-sized autonomous sumo bots gently pushing each other out of rings; as improvised Lego Mindstorms mix-ins; as devoted line followers; daring ribbon climbers; beautiful dancing androids; and even light eaters. But mostly, they came with their human servants, who watched and chatted and compared notes, all hoping to take away more ideas for further developing their charges.
Robotics enthusiasts are in many ways the hardware hackers par excellence--they begin from scratch, or from scraps, and seek to replace and exceed human function. They harden, they iterate; but they have a much harder time sharing than other geek communities.
Upping the Bus Speed on Robotics
"There's no easy way to show someone how to rewire a gear box online. It's just not as easy as sending an email or working on code together." says Simone Davalos, the event's co-coordinator. "It's slower because it's actually physical." In general, there have been few preexisting traditions of knowledge sharing between robotics communities. The autonomous robot designers haven't learned from the experiences of the combat robot contestants. The hobbyists and the academics may not realize when they are solving each other's problems.
That was Robotics Society of America president David Calkins' inspiration for founding the RoboGames, bringing together communities of disparate builders, and giving them a chance to learn from each other. "[Roboticists] tend to over-specialize. The AIBO soccer people are excellent with software, the combat people are excellent machinists, the sumo people are really good at sensors. The goal was to get them talking to each other."
In theory, the aim of the RoboGames is for teams to compete in a variety of challenges, for the usual gold, silver, and bronze awards. In practice, each event works as a showcase of the many scattered sub-disciplines, to the delight and surprise of their fellow experimenters, who may never have seen anything that close up outside of their field before.
And, of course, it's also a revelation to the general public, who get to see giant robots, made famous by TV shows like Robot Wars, gnash in the combat robot arena. And while those combat bots (complete with flying sparks and a monster-truck-pull-worthy announcer) grabbed a huge amount of attention from spectators, other subtle and complex non-combat events showed off parallel worlds of robotics.
Combat robots (Photo courtesy of Jeremy Fitzhardinge)
Some events, like balancing on two wheels and following a line, are simple to understand and highly focused, if not as easy as they sound. The "line slalom," where a robot tracks a black squiggly line across a white floor, may seem like reinventing the wheel. But this sort of event is still nuanced enough to appeal to aspirational hobbyists. With a field as young as robotics, hobbyists can still hope to find small ways to invent a better wheel--and can always be counted on to find cheaper ways to invent the wheel.
David Calkin sees events like the line slalom as partly "about inspiring kids to become robotics engineers."
One of the youngest event participant, Reut, eight years old, became interested while building robots with her father. Her entry was her fourth robot, an edge detector that could be a reasonable precursor to the line slalom. Tirion, age ten, built his towel-carrying robot for the classic hacker's reason--to scratch his own itch. He didn't like getting cold between getting out of the pool and getting his towel, so he built a robot that could eventually bring him a towel. It's not quite ready for poolside, but it took silver in the Mindstorms Open.
Other events, like the Firefighting event, combine many different robotic skills in a highly formalized manner. They are often as hard as they sound.
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