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This article is from the In-Depth Report Robots Among Us

Rise of the Machines: RoboGames Gears Up for 2009 [Slide Show]

The world's biggest open robotics competition showcases martial and creative arts, from mechanized kung fu to cyber painting and bartending
robo-soccer players



David Calkins

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On June 12, avid roboticists will bring several hundred robots from around the world to Fort Mason, Calif., to compete in RoboGames 2009. Some machines at the weekend event will come designed to turn other bots into scrap metal or to knock contenders out of a ring sumo-style, whereas others, seeking more peaceful competitive outlets, will try to prevail in soccer matches or impress artistically.

Originally called ROBOlympics (until 2005, when the International Olympic Committee nixed the name), the games, entering their sixth year, are organized in much the same way as that celebrated world athletic exhibition: Teams from various countries (19 last year) compete in between 50 and 60 events for gold, silver and bronze medals. "Some of the challenges we've come up with are just too difficult, though," says David Calkins, founder of RoboGames and a professor of robotics and computer engineering at San Francisco State University. "I've been offering triathlon since 2004 and only one person has ever signed their robot up."

Slide Show: RoboGames

RoboGames's most popular event could be described as "robo a robo" combat where two remote-controlled bots slug it out using an array of weapons ranging from flamethrowers to buzz saws. Over the course of three minutes teams try to disable adversarial machines in a square arena, which is surrounded by bulletproof plastic to protect onlookers from shrapnel. This style of metallic carnage has grown popular over the past 15 years, most famously on TV shows like Comedy Central's BattleBots, which ran from 2000 to 2002 (and may return on ESPN soon). Veterans of that series, such as Vladiator and The Judge, have since competed in RoboGames.

One of the premier combat categories is the super-heavyweight division for robots weighing 340 pounds (155 kilograms) or more. Ziggy, the gold medal champion robot from Canada for the past three years, can lob similarly heavy opponents 10 feet (three meters) with its megaflipper [see Ziggy pummel a washing machine on YouTube]. The Judge and Ziggy have faced off in the past, and both teams look forward to a possible rematch this year. "We've won one and lost one against The Judge, so this year may be the rubber match," says Mark Demers, creator of Ziggy and a salesman at the Santur Corp., a Fremont, Calif.–based optical technology company.

Despite the attention robotic warfare gets, Calkins points out that four out of five events are noncombative in nature. "We're not breeding Terminators here," he says. A big part of RoboGames is actually a beauty and ingenuity pageant for so-called artbots. These wild creations, often entered in the Best of Show event, have dripped Jackson Pollock–like sketches, dispensed candy, fed fish, watered plants, just about "whatever you want or can think of," says past RoboGames judge and competitor Greg Intermaggio, 18, a high school student in San Francisco.

Beyond fun, a key motive for staging RoboGames, Calkins says, is promoting the exchange of ideas among the different disciplines that relate to robotics design and construction. "Robotics isn't really a science unto itself as it is a nexus of other sciences," Calkins says. "We want people to cross-pollinate their knowledge."

"These competitions are very beneficial to the industry," says Peter Wurman, chief scientist at Kiva Systems, Inc., a Woburn, Mass., maker of cutting-edge autonomous robots that assist with warehouse stocking. "They help train a lot of people in the field [of robotics]" [see ScientificAmerican.com's past coverage of Kiva].

The friendly arms race that is RoboGames has also led to a robotic evolution of sorts. As the tourneys have gone by over the years, Calkins has noticed that the design and power of the robots has continued to improve as engineers hone their craft and learn from past failures. "The robots that competed six years ago," he says, "would get spanked by these modern ones."

Slide Show: RoboGames

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