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A robot scrimmage is stacks of fun

 
 
 

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A robot scrimmage is heaps of fun

Last weekend I checked out a robot scrimmage at WelTec. I had no idea what to expect, other than that a bunch of intermediate and high-school kids would be competing to see who had built the best robot. But what did that mean? Did it mean the robots would line up facing each other and charge like gridiron forwards, smashing helmets across the line of scrimmage? How would they score goals? Would I be in danger?

It turns out that a robot scrimmage involves two coalitions shoving balls Vex Roboticsaround a twelve-foot square paddock. Each coalition consists of two robots, each controlled by a separate team.

The “robots” are not self-motivated decision-making machines. They look like radio-controlled model excavators with attachments custom-built for the job in hand: In this case, stacking coloured tennis balls into goals, while preventing the other team from stacking coloured tennis balls into goals, without seeming to deliberately damage or block the other team’s robot. It’s fast, it’s furious, it’s damn confusing, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun. Unfortunately you have to be a school-kid to drive in the contest.

Teacher mentoring robot driverI don’t understand why kids should get to have all the fun, but I totally get why kids should be designing, building, and driving these things. The competition is an exciting and educational representation of life and business. You have to work as a team to conceive, build, fine-tune and drive your machine. Older folk like mentoring competitors. There are rules. You win by stretching the rules almost, but not quite, to breaking point. The organisers create a new game each year. You have to show up, on time, with a competitive machine. There can be only one winner. According to competition promoters Kiwibots New Zealand, the idea is “To inspire a passion for Science and Technology”. It will certainly do that. The competition requires teams to participate in all the activities involved in a commercial research and development project. Or a V8 Supercar campaign. Or an America’s Cup contest.

Vex Robotic competitions are well-established in Auckland and Christchurch. New Zealand teams won the last five world championships. It's new to the Wellington region, but it's off to a great start.

Eight teams from schools as far afield as Palmerston North and even Wellington showed up for the contest. Each team had designed, built, and programmed a robot using the contest-mandated Vex Robotics Design System, a heavy-duty Meccano system with bolts, nuts, gears, wheels, computers, sensors, switches, radio control game-pads, and lots of other neat toys.

Godzilla in actionTo start off, each team was paired with another team for a series of qualification rounds. Then the teams chose their partners for the eliminator. The highest-scoring team got first choice. Then the next-highest scorers chose from the leftovers, and so on until all the teams were paired off. With eight teams, this worked out far too neatly. I wondered if there’d been some kind of jack-up. But the kids were having far too much fun and there was absolutely no evidence any of them had been press-ganged. Each elimination round features a “best of three” series between two coalitions, with the winners progressing to the next round.

It was brutal. Robots stalled. Machines got jammed against walls. Bits fell off. Other bits got bent. Batteries died. Spectators got elbowed. Nobody could look anywhere except the debris-strewn playing field. And when it was all over, everybody was grinning wide. You woulda thought they’d been watching the Port Road Drags.

Taita College’s Godzilla teamed up with Fielding High School’s Dhalek Reaper to demolish the competition. Which highlighted an interesting feature of robot scrimmage. The best partner on the day might be someone you’ve never met, and perhaps, never even heard of before. The partnership is vital, but it lasts only for the duration of the contest.

Weltec has a permanent playing field set up for high school teams to test and fine-tune their robots. Contact WelTec Connect to find out how to use the facility.

 

Kevin Cudby is a Wellington-based Freelance Writer and Technologist who loves writing about cool new technology. Email him to discuss your communication requirements: hello {a} kevincudby.com

 
 
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