The Future of Robotics Competitions
— this one included —
certainly need our
continued support. All of
the smaller and most of
the larger robot
companies that advertise
here in SERVO are
struggling to stay in
business to keep us
supplied with the motors,
servos, sensors, drivers,
and robot kits that we
need for our projects.
There is an upward turn
in the economy as we start the new year, but we
have a long way to go to achieve the stability that
we all desire.
Is There Less Interest
in Robot Conferences
Many people noticed the drop in attendance
and participation at the Seattle Robotics Society’s
Robothon this year and are wondering why. Is it
the economy in the doldrums? Is it the large
amount of unemployment? Are people shifting
from technical hobbies to other interests? Or,
could it just be the lower cost of finished robot
components and systems that has driven people
away from the ‘build it yourself’ attitude. Well, it’s
probably a bit of everything.
Some have said “Who needs contests? I build
robots because I enjoy seeing my finished creation.
My ‘bots don’t bash others to bits; they just make
me happy.” Quite a few people have expressed
opinions about how the ‘old tried and true’
contests such as maze solving, micromouse
contests, line following, Sumo, combat robots, and
even RoboMagellan are getting a bit ‘old in the
tooth’ and need some new life. FIRST, FRC, VEX,
Robocup, BEST Robotics, and other ‘country-wide’
contests are still popular, and technical hobby
exhibitions such as the iHobby Expos are getting a
larger percentage of robotics enthusiasts. It seems
to be the local variety held by individual robot
clubs that are not as popular and are having fewer
entrants than in the past.
Let’s examine a few of the ‘staples’ of
contests that interest people the most. It is at
these contests that builders get to show off their
expertise in programming and basic robot design.
78 SERVO 01.2010
Foremost is probably the Micromouse contests.
These were first envisioned by IEEE in 1977 and
the first competition was held in New York in
1979. This autonomous robot contest has served
as a model for many other events.
A micromouse is a totally autonomous robot
that traverses and solves a 16 x 16 maze that is
composed of 18 cm squares. The ‘mouse’ cannot
crawl over or damage the maze walls and can be
any height (though most winning mice are quite
small with a low mass and CG to cover the course
as quickly as possible). Entrants cannot see the
maze (and program a solution ahead of time) until
the start of a competition. At the start of a run,
the mouse goes from a destination square on the
perimeter of the maze to a destination square at
the center. The quickest run time determines the
winner. Figure 2 is an early 1981 mouse and
Figure 3 is a more modern mouse from Japan.
Earlier mice used a wall following technique
that would always result in a successful win.
However, in one contest, a purely mechanical
(non-intelligent) mouse won the competition, so
now wall followers are banned. These events are a
good display for the general public as something
exciting and relatively easy to build. Go to
ieee.org to learn more.
Other Robot Contests
Another popular contest is the line maze
contest. Figure 4 shows the line maze from the
SRS’s 2009 Robothon. Notice that there are ‘tricky’
parts to solve, such as endless loops and dead
ends. It is basically a black line that the robot
follows from the “T” to the black dot. The robot
must fit within a six inch cube and be completely
autonomous. Variations of this contest have
included walled mazes similar to the Micromouse,
simple line following, and obstacle traversing.
Robots are custom-built from scratch or builders
use LEGO or Vex kits and parts.
Robot versus robot contests include
BattleBots, the Robot Fighting League, and similar
variations, with 15 weight classes from 150 grams
to almost 400 pounds, with and every type of
weapon you can imagine. Sumo robot contests
come in various weight sizes and classes as well.
Both of these types of contests have radio control
and autonomous varieties. They each draw a
different type of crowd from the simple, single
robots trying to solve a maze or navigation
problem. Groups are now striving to vary the rules
and classes to allow different competitions to
draw more spectators and interest. SparkFun
Electronics has just announced a new type of
contest called RoboJoust that pits two combative