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April 22, 1999

The 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. It’s obtainable with today’s technology. There are contests which in ten years, no one has succeeded in completing. Technologically, it’s 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 build.

Many successful robots were constructed out of Legos and wooden popsicle sticks. In Mendelssohn’s experience, the amount of money you spend is not really the determining factor in a robot’s performance. It’s the amount of brainpower you put into it.

And having a PhD doesn’t guarantee success: "Two years ago, we had three college professors -I [Mendelsson] won’t 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 didn’t function. There was a 5th grade girl who brought a robot and hers moved. It didn’t 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

Robots have four primary parts:

  • sensors
  • controller
  • effectors
  • 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 walls.

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 sensor:

  • 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 Stampy’s performance. "I’ve always wanted to build a walking robot. I’ve seen other people build them, and they just look cool. There’s a lot of character in a robot that resembles a human - people seem to react better to them than bugs, cubes, or tubes. He’s a little slow, but he’s 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.

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.

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 it’s 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 everyone’s favorite space-age family, the Jetsons. While today’s robots don’t 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 don’t realize what a robot is. They are expecting R2D2 and that1s not really what most robots are."

Elsewhere on the Web

Find out who won this year at Trinity College’s Sixth Annual Robot Fire Fighting Contest.

International Robotics Meeting Robotics experts will gather in Pittsburgh April 25-29 at the Eighth Bi-Annual Topical Meeting on Robotics and Remote Systems

It has become easy and affordable for novices to get involved in robotics. What are you waiting for?

- A number of community robotics clubs provide a peer group for encouragement and technological advice.

- Several companies offer robot "kits" in a range of styles and degrees of sophistication

by STN2

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