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Friday, January 29, 2010

Come with me - if you want to live.

I finally watched Terminator Salvation the other night.

I couldn't work out if the machines actually knew who Kyle Reese was or why they wanted to capture him - and also why they didn't just kill him when they had the chance!

There was also the matter of how lightly guarded skynet central was (despite apparently producing about 1 T800 per second), and how those motorcycle robots were supposed to get up if someone knocked them over.

What I really wanted to talk about though, was the Robopocalypse. Not so much the idea that robots will eventually rise up against their human masters, but just about how robots (or any machine) can be dangerous if people are careless around them.

I used to be vice-president of the Sydney University Mechatronics Organization, which held a yearly robot wars competition. Now, as you can imagine, robots designed to tear each other to bits would be equally (more?) effective at maiming pathetic squishy humans, so it was hard to disregard OH&S.

Despite a strong emphasis on safety, the university was in a difficult position when it came to allowing students to use their facilities. If we were injured in one of the workshops or laboratories, then the uni was liable - even if we were being properly supervised or if it was due to our own negligence. However, if we attempted to work on the robot outside of the university, we were without the appropriate tools and safety equipment and were significantly more likely to injure ourselves. This created many headaches and administrative woes, which ultimatley turned what should have been a fun and simple activity for students into a legislative nightmare.

This is why I am so much in favor of the smaller and safer robo-one style competition. I think it is a more elegant form of robot combat, for a more civilized age.

This video is from a new humanoid competition called RT Corp under 1kg Robot Fight. Like robo-one, it emphasizes lightweight robots which wrestle each other in a ring.

I think that this is a better direction for schools and universities who want to encourage students to learn about robots and mechatronics while having a bit of fun.

  1. Robot wars robots are glorified remote control cars. There, I said it. Many designs, like wedges or saws don't need any additional circuitry to control their weapons. The design is primarily in the mechanical field, and students will learn very little about the electrical or software side.
  2. It's so much safer. There are no dangerous weapons, and the weight limit is also much lower (unless you're these guys). The machining process is also much simpler (use tin-snips instead of table saws, solder instead of welding, etc).
  3. You get to keep your robot at the end. One of the most annoying things about robot wars is that if you lost, your robot was toast. Nothing gets damaged or destroyed in a wrestling match, so you are free to upgrade and modify parts for next time.
  4. The emphasis is on design and technique, not raw power. Software, real-time control, electrical systems and weight distribution are just as important as how strong your motors are.
  5. It's just as exciting. Robots can take their inspiration from boxing, tae-kwon do, ju-jitsu, MMA, akido, pancrase or any other type of martial art.

    The biggest drawback is that it can be quite expensive to build these little guys, but probably not by a huge margin. Our 13kg Robot wars Robots cost $300-500 (excluding the remote controls, which were borrowed), but I can see a under 1kg robot being build for a similar amount.

    If that doesn' convince you, just look at how much fun these guys are having!

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