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San Francisco — The hundreds of youngsters who hooted and cheered as combat machines ruthlessly bashed each other at the RoboGames competition here last month showed how entertaining robots can be. But as the robots grappled, their limitations were also evident, revealing the distance they may have to travel before finding a killer app.
While the weekend event demonstrated the mechanical strength and dexterity, as well as human-like problem solving of new-generation robots, many competitors were students and hobbyists without large corporate sponsorships.
The RoboGames included robotic sumo wrestlers, maze runners and autonomous land vehicles, biped androids that could imitate the action of human joints in motion, and even Sony's soccer-playing Aibo robotic dogs. In one event, autonomous fire-fighting robots had to enter a facsimile of a burning building, distinguish between a light bulb and a candle (both sources of heat and light) and pour water on the right one.
The games drew 214 teams from 13 countries, according to David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of America, its principal sponsor. There were 466 robots, backed by some 646 engineers. Segments of the destructive combat sequences were shown on local television and on CNN.
One participant saw the robots' potential for military applications. Bob Bluhm, general manager for the portable oscilloscope unit of Tektronix Inc., a sponsor of the CM Robotics team, said he is enthralled with the life-saving potential of robots. "These things are moving from the factory floor" — where they can lift a car body and position a welding torch to within a fraction of an inch — "to battlefield situations," where they dismantle bombs and extract bullets from wounded solders, Bluhm said.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) has funded a number of robotics research projects in hopes of finding military and aerospace applications, Bluhm said. The most visible to date is the Darpa Grand Challenge, in which teams race autonomous vehicles across the Mojave Desert.
"Look at the multiple electronics systems these units must employ," Bluhm said. "You need complex vision systems, motors and servos, needles and pincers with micro-inch precision. On top of that, it needs to be battery-powered and energy-efficient."
"Robotics brings a convergence of three different technologies — electronics, electromechanics and precision machining," explained Calkins, who is also a professor of Robotics and Computer Engineering at the School of Engineering at San Francisco State University, where the RoboGames were held. "The sumo robots are good sensors," he said. "The androids are good electromechanical implementations; the combat guys are good machinists."
The sound and the fury
While robots can demonstrate intelligence, manual dexterity and mechanical strength, there were few contests at the RoboGames that actually called for equal measures of all three. The combat machines brought to mind Shakespeare's conjecture that all the world's a stage. The microprocessor intelligence in the machinery had little to do with who won or lost: Victory had more to do with power in the motor wheels and transmissions.
The sound and the fury: Victory often had more to do with brute strength than with machine intelligence.
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One type of combat robot was a low-to-the-ground steel platform that could scoop underneath its competitor, drive it against the steel girders that served as the railings of the combat ring and ultimately toss it out of the ring. Another combat machine was a "spinner," a barbed or bladed spinning top that could literally slice pieces out of its opponent. A 340-pound spinner, called Super Megabyte, ultimately won the heavyweight combat.
One spinner, developed by CM Robotics (San Jose, Calif.), employed an infrared pulse in its navigational mechanism. The same wheels that spun the barbed weapon also propelled it by controlling each wheel's direction, speed and torque. Rotary encoders on the wheels provided almost instantaneous feedback on their direction and speed.
Waiting for combat: There is palpable tension as the CM Robotics team awaits their turn in the robot gladiator arena. Michael Worry (dark shirt. far right), CEO of design services company Nuvation checks the range finder on his computer.
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Altera Corp., another sponsor of the CM Robotics team, provided the Cyclone FPGAs and Nios operating system used in the robot's unique propulsion system, said Michael Worry, CEO of Nuvation Research Corp., the engineering services group that programmed the FPGAs. Tektronix provided the TPS2000 portable scope used to calibrate the infrared navigational pulses, Worry said.
The same wheels that spun CM Robotics' barbed weapon also propelled it by controlling each wheel's direction, speed and torque
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The events that required the most robotic intelligence also required a lot of patience to sit through. The soccer-playing Sony Aibo is built with a MIPS R6000 processor, 64 Mbytes of main memory and firmware (compiled from C++) inserted through a USB Memory Stick. Despite the color recognition on which the event hinged, no DSPs or sophisticated pattern-matching mechanisms were employed in the Aibos.
Rather, a soccer-playing Aibo could recognize color-coded goal areas and an orange ball with a CMOS image sensor. It would lunge at the orange ball and attempt to score by swatting it toward the goal area with its snout. But some of the robot players acted like "goalies" on the field, lying down flat with their front legs around the ball as if they were going to lick it. Then they refused to move. The humans performed a "hard reset" by lifting the confused robot doggie out of the green-mat playing field, visually orienting it on a border and putting it back.
Aibo plays soccer: In one of the competitions at the RoboGames, teams of Sony robot dogs were programmed to drive a ball towards an opponents goal and swat it in with their snouts.
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The Aibo soccer match was won by a team from Dortmund University in Germany, the Hellhounds, sponsored by Microsoft Corp.
Robomagellan (like the Darpa Challenge) was a competition emphasizing autonomous navigation between two objects — orange traffic cones — about a half-mile down steps, then onto a lawn and around trees, on the grounds of San Francisco State. The timed event tested obstacle avoidance over a varied, outdoor terrain.
"Xploradora," a self-propelled, self-directing machine constructed by hobbyists Brandon Blodget and James Ogden seemed to have gone further than any of its competitors, in the second round of competition — about half way between the cones — before it came to a dead stop. "The battery gave out," said Blodget, who happens to be a staff engineer with Xilinx's Research Labs in San Jose.
Third place winners: Hobbyists James Ogden and Brandon Blodget (right) won a bronze medal in the Robo-Magellon competition at the RoboGames.
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While on-board image sensors helped Xploradora steer clear of objects, Blodget had hoped that a GPS position finder would help the robot navigate. In the end, he had to rely on the resolution of the robot's internal compass, and FPGAs to hardwire his instructions — "go 20 feet and turn left," etc. — in hopes that it would advance the progress of his machine in the following round. While it was forbidden to communicate with the machine while it navigated its course, a Bluetooth link allowed Blodget to download fresh instructions and to debug between the second and third rounds of competition. His machine ultimately won third prize, a bronze metal, in the contest.
"The technology development is probably between that of an Apple I and an Apple II," Calkins said, acknowledging the "garage shop" feel of many of the robot entries. "Sony and Honda have built brilliant walkers," he said, referring to the biped androids that emulate human movements. "These guys [contestants in the games] build them in their garages for one or two thousand dollars."
"Robotics won't take over the world," Calkins concluded. "It will just enhance living." He sees robotics not as an all-embracing movement but as a proliferation of special-purpose machines, like autonomous vacuum cleaners and lawn mowers. "Our job is to inspire and educate," he said.