Ushering in the machine wars

Robots fight for supremacy at Concordia’s BattleBots 2015

Who would find sumo-wrestling robots disagreeable? Not all have the technical skill to create such a robot, but few would mind watching the competition. Enter Concordia’s second ever Robowars this past Saturday, Feb. 28, with the ultimate human victor taking home a $1000 in cash prizes.

“We took on the challenge of hosting,” said Tristan Cool, director of competition for Concordia’s Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and an electrical engineering student himself at the university.

The rules last Saturday were simple. An individual robot couldn’t weigh more than three kilograms and had to fit within a 20 x 20 cm square at the beginning—but could expand afterwards to whatever configuration its creator’s imagination had in store. The third dimension was unbounded, with the sky’s the limit as far as height was concerned. Placed two at a time in a circular ring measuring exactly five feet in diameter, the objective was to push the other robot out by whatever means—so long as they were safe, so no knives or flame throwers allowed. Like binary, you either pushed out or were pushed out.

Cool describes the competitors as mostly hobbyists who devote their own money and time to the project, and time and money it took: tiny robots call for intricate machinery and technical designs that often take six months to a year to construct, giving very little downtime between the annual competitions.
“The competitors knew each other, that’s how small the community is. In any competition that comes up, it’s always the same guys. We’re a niche community,” he said.

The funding mostly came from the Engineering and Computer Science Association (ECA) and the manufacturing and mining company CGA, which competed itself with two models but waived any right to a cash prize.

Cool says the event gave him and all those attending the chance to see some really imaginative designs: “I saw a lot of cool things: I saw 3D printing, a lot of steel milling; people built ramps and hooks. Rather than being a box with wheels on it, there was a lot of cool mechanical considerations in this year’s robots.”

Cool was also surprised and pleased to see that the newer generations didn’t necessarily own the field. The older robots might not have been as fancy and were easily differentiated from their high-tech cousins by the aging internal specs and designs, but they didn’t suffer from the frequent technical difficulties and maintenance issues that debilitated newer constructs.

“Some of those tried-and-true robots definitely held their own,” he said. “A lot of the high-tech ones were too high-tech, [and] over-engineered.” One 10-year-old robot made it through nearly 20 rounds before being eliminated.

Next year’s Robowars intends to prove third time’s the charm by securing more funding and increasing in size, by opening to slightly modified international rules that would allow them to compete with and send teams abroad. Cool is also looking to expand by creating tutorials to coach and improve the quality of competition. “We’re going to think big,” he said.

Does he himself dream of a future of robot overlords? Not yet.

“Being a director of competitions, the one downside is I can’t compete in any of my competitions,” said Cool, who’s waiting to graduate before contemplating a future in robotics. For now, he has a few robots under his belt—but, unlike the competitors at his events, they’re gentle beasts comfortable navigating mazes, more lovers than fighters.

Robowars 2015 ushered in Concordia’s engineering week, which will see plenty of competitions and inventive events. For more information, click here

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