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Robot Sports

Tilden definitely hit on something with the idea of using human competition as a way of accelerating robot evolution. Other robot researchers, such as Fred Martin and 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 and computer engineering design course turned into a robot design competition in 1992. Its 6.270 Robot Builder’s Guide helped inspire a generation of robot builders (including your humble author). 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, and easy prototyping in the building of small robots. Robot sports and academic competitions have grown over the years, to the point where robotic sports have been embraced by a mainstream audience. Here are a few other arenas of robotic competition:

Combat Robotics

You can say what you want about Battlebots, Robot Wars, Robotica, and 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. As we’ll delve into in Chapter 4, “Robot Anatomy Class,” robots are constructed of numerous subsystems (structural frames, actuators, power systems, controllers, and so forth). All of these systems can benefit from tireless devotion to designing, redesigning, building, and rebuilding—learning from previous successes and failures. Although most combat robots have no sensors, and the main controller is usually a geek with an R/C radio, these robots continue to get more impressive in their mechanical and electronic sophistication. As with BEAMbots, in which survival and a robust attitude are key, combat robots have to be powerful, sturdy, and resilient. Builders spend inordinate amounts of time studying and testing different construction materials, structural forms, building techniques, and trying to maximize power while minimizing weight (which, as we’ll see in Chapter 4, is a constant battle for all robot builders). 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.


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