RoboGames 2013: Building a Better Robot

By Phill Powell

This is where the robots come…to kill each other. Actually, they’re brought here by their creators, who soup up their robots with special skills—like the ability to spit fire or chew through metal.

Robots in the arena are pounded, bashed, sawed on, set on fire and flipped. Here a 200-pound robot gets slammed against a wall. (Image: Dave Schumaker)

Then these same tech heads who have invested hours, money and elbow grease into perfecting their creations take their beloved robots and chuck ‘em into a pit where they have to battle it out—to the finish. One goes to the Winner’s Circle. The other gets taken to the scrap heap.

It’s Day Three of RoboGames 2013 in San Mateo, near San Francisco. Digital Media Academy has come to check out the more than 50 individual competitions. Some of them are battle-to-the-death events, while others challenge robot controllers to put their creations through the paces while completing some type of series of tasks.

The Main Event
Although there are other attractions, there’s no disputing that the epic robot battles are the main attraction of RoboGames. At this year’s games, thousands of spectators have shown up to see robots battle to the death. There’s one robot battle after another, with the winner of each bout progressing to the next level of competition, all leading up to Sunday’s final slugfest to determine a grand champion.

Other robot games, like this maze challenge, round out the RoboGames activities.

Each battle takes place in a 40 foot-by-40 foot square arena that has high plexiglass walls to protect spectators from flying robot parts. That’s a very real concern, considering that bouts often see robots bulldoze each other, torch each other with flame jets and slice each other with circular-saw blades. Keep in mind that these aren’t any small toy robots; these are big bots that more closely resemble go karts. If they go flying, you’re talking about a 300-pound chunk of metal. No wonder there’s a trained medic crew on call in case something goes horribly wrong.

Robot Sumo Face-Off
It’s high-tension drama when the robots are placed in the arena prior to competition. Almost like a pro wrestling match, the moments leading up to matches can be full of trash talk and signifying robot moves. There are three bleachers surrounding the action, and they’re packed with robot fans, as well as robot experts who serve as judges for the various competitions. Robots are brought into the arena in strict accordance to rules, with their “wheels up.” Like in boxing, there’s a standing 10 second count. If a fighting bot can’t get back in the game within that count, the bout’s over.

There’s a real cyber punk feel to the atmosphere here at RoboGames 2013—part industrial and part surreal. You can see lots of pieces of old technology scavenged together by robot makers who mix equal parts creativity and tech savvy.

Robots showcase the resourcefulness of their creators, who find unique ways to utilize bits and pieces and odds ‘n’ ends. One striking robot had a mannequin head; the robot’s creator had removed his jaw and given him a hinged replacement that moves when he “talks.” The things you see at RoboGames!

Vendors sold cool UAV drones from their booth at RoboGames 2013.

Let’s Get Ready to Rumble!
Digital Media Academy came to San Mateo to this year’s RoboGames event because DMA is all about robotics. This year, DMA’s kid and teen campers can choose between four fantastic robotics tech camps. For junior robot builders age 8 through 12, DMA’s Adventures in Robotics camp provides a wonderful introduction to the world of mechanical engineering, through the use of the LEGO® Mindstorms® NXT robotics kit.

Teens have several robotics-camp options. In DMA’s Robotics & Programming for Teens camp, students design their own robots with CAD software, then build them using LEGO® Mindstorms® kits. Teens ready to take their robot-building skills to the next level will find what they’re seeking in DMA’s Robotics & Electrical Engineering with Arduino camp. Students explore Arduino, one of the hottest platforms around, and also receive an introduction to the Wiring programming language.

For teens who want a completely immersive, total robotics experience, DMA’s Academy for Robotics & Engineering gives campers two full weeks of cutting-edge robotics, including LEGO® Mindstorms® robots and those developed with Arduino. Pick up important programming basics while having a great time making the coolest robots you can imagine. We’re gearing up for a robotics summer at DMA tech camp locations.