Pitting robots against robots in competitions from Bear Rescue to Ketchup House

This weekend saw the return of Robotic Day in Prague, organised for the 13th time by the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics at Charles University. Teams, largely of students from either university or high school, who registered to compete, tested their designs in various competitions with colourful names like Bear Rescue and Ketchup House. Most importantly Sunday of the two-day event was open to the public, for anyone interested in seeing some of the robots for themselves.

Photo: archive of Charles UniversityPhoto: archive of Charles University I spoke to David Obdržálek from the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics; first he told me a little about the history of the competition.

“It was founded at the faculty at Charles University; the first year that we organized the event it was a very small meeting where we had to select three of four robots to be sent to an international robotic competition. But we made it public and the students asked the next year if we could do it again so we founded the event and it grew from 14 entries then to more than 140 this year.”

Basically university students involved in some way, usually, with robotics…

“Not only university students, even gradually younger students from high schools have been t6aking part; I believe it is about two-thirds who are from university or secondary schools and one-third are fans or hobbyists. The aim is to motivate people to get into robotics, so many of the competitions are fairly easy but some are harder and that is where we get teams of older students.”

Are there a common criteria for the entries which has to be met?

“In one part of the competition there is such criteria: we run eight competitions, all of them in two formats or categories: one is that you can build a robot from just about anything you can find and the other is that you have to use a construction kit for robots, which can be Lego, Merkur, Meccano, ow whatever else so that they don’t have to deal with the mechanics. That is common for this part: they can programme their robot any way they like but they can’t use any other mechanical stuff of building tools. For the other robots it is quite diverse: they use what they know or are able to use, ranging from single chip or micro controllers to industrial PCs.”

Are all of the robots autonomous?

"In some of the events you can can build a robot from just about anything you can find and in others you have to use a construction kit."

“All but one of the competitions is for autonomous robots: the robots have to do everything on their own. People only start the robot and then cannot interfere with what it is doing. As far as how the robots are controlled, the solutions are very diverse: many of them are simple hardwired programmes giving them instructions like Go 10 centimeters, left, Go right and so on but that is not the most successful of strategies; we always want the authors to build the robots to be react autonomously presented with different conditions. If they meet an obstacle, or find what they find need to find, then they switch to the next goal.”

I’ve been told in the past that it is hard to make robots which are great or good at a wide array of tasks, is that true?

“Yes, certainly it is really quite hard to make a robot that would be good at almost everything – for a parallel Nature had millions of years to evolve the human race but robots are here for around 100 years. So there is no comparison. But for technical tasks, you can have a robot which specializes in multiple tasks but more common you have robots which are specifically designed to fulfil a small number of tasks. And this set of tasks may be similar: you can have an autonomous robot car which run on any street but cannot run in the woods. Similarly, you can have a robot in a factory built to mill something or join parts but you definitely can’t send it to get coffee. Likewise, you can have a robot which gets coffee, but it won’t then be putting a shift in at the car making plant!”

The names of some of the competitions are adorable: there is Bear Rescue, Advanced Bear Rescue, Ketchup House and Follow the Line…

"In Ketchup House, there is a parallel in real life: imagine a storehouse where you have stuff and you send robots to get it."

“Bear Rescue is one of my favourites: we founded it to see if we could send a robot to fetch stuff for us. That is what they have to do in this case. The scenario is that you find out your teddy bear is missing and the robot has to get it and bring it to you. In the simple version, the robot is radio-controlled but in the advanced it is autonomous and has to find teddy in a simple maze-like environment.

“In Ketchup House, there is a parallel in real life: imagine a storehouse where you have stuff and you send robots to get it. There are grids of black lines on the floor representing the storage room and the starting point and two separate robots are sent to get cans of ketchup. At the same time, the robots in the storage area can steal cans from each other. It is quite funny to see the robots going back and forth and stealing from each other.”

I can imagine the ketchup fight which must ensue; I am sure that there must be a couple stories there. And speaking of stories, do robots generally come through the allotted tasks okay, or do they get damaged, are there spectacular fails?

“It is very common that when participants come with their robots, half of them might not work! They worked at home but for one reason or another they stop on site. The conditions can be different, the floor has a different color or something like that, and they have to fix everything just before the competition. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t.

“Even if they pass the homologation where we check whether the robot is safe and doing what it should, in the competitions something can break. The robots can collide, parts may fall off, if it is from Lego for example, robots can hit the wall. We have lots of videos from Robotic Day in Prague on youtube and on our website which people can see to get an idea. Sometimes there are spectacular fails and a robot can even burn or fall apart and begins to act in a crazy way.”

"We want the participants to do something and we provide them the opportunity for them to compare and to learn from others."

That sounds entertaining although not for the person or crew which has designed the robot which goes to pieces… I suppose there must be a fair amount of anticipation in how well team’s robots will do…

“I have to stress that the competition is not designed to choose the best robot and that that that will receive a huge prize. It is the opposite: we want the participants to do something and we provide them the opportunity for them to compare and to learn from others. Most of the problems they face have already been solved by someone else. If the teams meet at one place they can help each other; in fact these matches are only a tiny part of the event’s purpose, the tip of the iceberg above the water. The majority is below.

“When something breaks it is not a disaster because they have learned something. Of course, having built robots for competition I know that when your robot fails it is hard to take, you can be down. But you tackle the problem and learn from it and tell yourself you will build something better next time.”