Sixth Annual Robot Fire Fighting Contest was held at Trinity College in
Hartford, CT April, 1999. Eighty-seven robots from five countries: the US,
Canada, Switzerland, Thailand, and Israel competed in a 12 inch tall fire
fighting challenge: find a burning candle in a maze and put out the blaze.
Jacob Mendelssohn, coordinator of the contest, explains, "The reason for a fire
fighting robot is that it is an attainable goal. Its obtainable with todays
technology. There are contests which in ten years, no one has succeeded in completing.
Technologically, its interesting, but it gets boring after a while. We wanted to
have some fun and every year we have people succeed."
How do you build a Robot?
The robots must move through their environment
under their own power and without any human control, other than that which was
required to build and program them. Most of the robots cost less than $500 to
Many successful robots were constructed out of Legos and wooden popsicle sticks. In
Mendelssohns experience, the amount of money you spend is not really the determining
factor in a robots performance. Its the amount of brainpower you put into it.
And having a PhD doesnt guarantee success: "Two years ago, we had three college
professors -I [Mendelsson] wont mention what school - that got together and built a robot.
They brought it here and it never moved. They made it so complicated that it didnt function.
There was a 5th grade girl who brought a robot and hers moved. It didnt win, but it beat
the professors. I have a photograph of these three professors standing around this little girl
asking her about her robot and how she got hers to work."
Putting Robots to the Test
During the summer of 1998, the RoboCup-98
in Paris pitted sixty-four robot soccer teams against each
other, while the humanoid World Cup battled on somewhat larger fields in other
parts of the city. Not only must these robots score the most goals; they must
do this by devising strategies in communication with their teammates.
Robots have four primary parts:
- power source
Sensors measure some aspect of the outside world, much as
our senses do. Sensors could measure the amount of light, heat,
or smoke, or the distance from an object to avoid running into
The controller is the "brain" of the robot.The controller
receives information from the sensors and makes a decision about
how to respond based on that information. Simple controllers may
contain only one or two instructions. For example:
- Rule #1 IF the intensity of light is increasing, THEN continue
moving in this direction.
- Rule #2 OTHERWISE, stop and find the direction with more light.
The effectors do something based on information from the
- Motion effectors Most of the robots used wheels. One
was different. Stampy, the only walking robot, won the heart
of the crowd. His creator, Mark Whitney, a software engineer
from North Carolina, was pleased with Stampys performance.
"Ive always wanted to build a walking robot. Ive
seen other people build them, and they just look cool. Theres
a lot of character in a robot that resembles a human - people
seem to react better to them than bugs, cubes, or tubes. Hes
a little slow, but hes still fun to watch."
- Putting out the flame: Most turned on little fans
and blew out the candle.
Power supply - Two factors determine how large a battery
the robot should have. Large power packs result in a heavy or
bulky robot that might not be able to maneuver in the maze. On
the other hand, some robots ran out of "juice" before putting
out the candle.
For those whose taste in sports run more towards a cross between stock car racing and the World
Wrestling Federation, Robot Wars may be the technological equivalent, featuring
posturing and power by some mean autonomous machines. The goal is to immobilize the other robot. Robots
compete in different weight classes.
Finally, a contest that is bound to lead to a commercial market,
the 1999 Vacuum Robot Contest! Robots are expected to navigate
around a chair, floor lamp, and speaker-box without damaging them, while cleaning as well as a manually-operated
vacuum. Judging is based on the quantity of dirt swept up by each robot in a six minute period.
What has a Robot done for me lately?
In the future, every home will be equipped with its own domestic robot. At least, so go the
fantasies of many a science fiction writer from the infamous Isaac Asimov to the cartoonists at Hanna
Barbara who brought us everyones favorite space-age family, the Jetsons. While todays
robots dont resemble C3PO of Star Wars fame, they do perform some rather sophisticated tasks.
Famous robots include the Mars Sojourner Rover
who searched for rocks on Mars and Dante II who
collected data from inside a volcano.
Robots have found less glamorous employment in automobile manufacturing and in chemical
laboratories , where they replace humans in potentially hazardous or tedious situations.
Domestically, robots are available to mow your
lawn. Mendelssohn points out that there are more robots around us than most people realize.
"I think businesses have already discovered it. They are using robotics not only in factories,
but in offices all over. The age of robotics is here. Most people dont realize what a robot is.
They are expecting R2D2 and that1s not really what most robots are."