Monday, March 10, 2008

Robot Sports (robot combat and sumo etc.)

Robot sports deals with the idea of using human competition as a way of accelerating robot evolution. Other robot researchers, such as Fred Martin & Randy Savage at MIT, were also using games as a way of inspiring students to "go for the gold" in robot design. MIT's infamous 6.270 electrical & computer engineering design course turned into a robot design competition in 1992.For the MIT competition, LEGO blocks were used as building components (years before LEGO released its MINDSTORMS building sets), ushering in the age of quick, cheap, & easy prototyping in the building of small robots. Robot sports & academic competitions have grown over the years, to the point where robotic sports have been embraced by a mainstream audience

Combat Robotics

You can say what you want about Battlebots, Robot Wars, Robotica, & combat robotics in general, but no one can deny that the attention this emerging sport has gotten has raised the general public's interest in all things robotic. Even though some argue that these machines aren't robots at all, but rather, remote-controlled (R/C) vehicles with seriously bad tempers, there have been real innovations in the field.

Although most combat robots have no sensors, & the main controller is usually a geek with an R/C radio, these robots continue to get more impressive in their mechanical & electronic sophistication. As with BEAMbots, in which survival & a robust attitude are key, combat robots have to be powerful, sturdy, & resilient. Builders spend inordinate amounts of time studying & testing different construction materials, structural forms, building techniques, & trying to maximize power while minimizing weight An impressively large number of combat robot builders work in the movie special effects industry (the inventor of the sport, Marc Thorpe, worked on Star Wars at Lucasfilm). Several builders, such as one of the sport's pioneers, Mark Setrakian, claim that they've applied technologies developed for their robots to their work in movie animatronics.

From the very beginning of the idea for Robot Wars, creator Mark Thorpe saw its great entertainment potential. He likes to describe combat robotics as the first sport of the twenty-first century. Like Tilden, he saw the potential for competition & builder cooperation via robot games, but he added a new vehicle of robot evolution: commercialism. He knew that if robot sports became popular, there would inevitably be spin-off products (toys, games, kits, T-shirts, how-to books, & the like) & he saw this as a very good thing. He would cut the builders in on the licensing royalties of products based on their bots, & they could use this money to become robot sports professionals. Also, money from the inevitable corporate sponsorships (a la NASCAR) could go toward building better bots. All of this has happened in the case of Battlebots: Robot evolution through human consumerism!


There is probably nothing more inherently Japanese than sumo, a form of wrestling in which two gargantuanly fat men in disturbingly small loin clothes try to steamroll each other out of a small ring. The stars of the sport are heroes in Japan, sex symbols, even. In the late 1980s, the chairman of Fuji Software, a sumo fan himself, dreamt up the idea of replacing the human wrestlers with robotic ones. The first official tournament, held in Japan in 1990, drew nearly 150 competitors. In 2001, some 4,000 bots participated in countrywide tournaments. Not wanting Japan to have all the bot-shoving fun, the sport was introduced in the U.S. soon after it began & has spread steadily, here & throughout the world.

The goals of the game in robot sumo are the same as in its human predecessor. Two robots (either R/C-controlled or autonomous) face off in a raised ring (60 5/8 inches or 154cm). There are three matches. The first robot to get two points (one point per match) wins. To score a point, a robot has to push its opponent out of the ring (or a point is scored against a bot that drives itself out of the ring). That's about it. There are two weight classes. A regular robot sumo can weigh up to 3 kilograms (6.61 lbs). A mini-sumo competitor can weigh up to 500 grams (16.64 ounces).

Obviously, a lot of the fun of robot sumo is building the bot. It is something of a Zen art to create a robot that has serious traction & pushing power but that stays within the weight restrictions. It might sound like all of the fun is in the building & that watching the sport is boring, but you'd be surprised.



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