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
Credits: David Calkins
VAN GOGH–BOT: Bill Sherman’s Drawer Bot uses vibrations to make multicolored doodles. The mechanism turns on and off randomly, allowing spontaneous art to form. The robot took the silver in the painting competition two years in a row—in 2007 and last year.
SPARKS FLY: More combat action from RoboGames. This photo helps illustrate why the combat arena is surrounded by two layers of half-inch- (1.3-centimeter-) thick bulletproof polycarbonate.
THE DEEP BLUE OF CONNECT FOUR?: Though not in the same league as Deep Blue, IBM's chess-playing supercomputer that beat human world champ Garry Kasparov in 1997, this Connect Four–playing bot is pretty impressive considering a kid helped build it. The Junior League, featuring creations by the under-18 crowd, has several categories for robos made from Legos.
COLORS AND LIGHTS: This robot, christened Farad, was crafted from recycled electronic components using soldering techniques and hot-melt glue, says Bill Sherman, whose wife Becky created Farad. Farad won a silver medal in the Artbot competition at RoboGames in 2007 and 2005.
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CAN I, ROBOT, BUY YOU A DRINK?: RoboGames also includes an event for bartending bots. This picture shows David Calkins's own robotic bartender, Chapek. The appellation comes from early 20th century Czech writer Karl Čapek and his brother Josef who coined the globally recognized word "robot," which derives from words meaning "work," "forced labor" or "serf" in various Slavic languages. Chapek can serve up cocktails ranging from martinis to screwdrivers, Calkins says. The robot has also been programmed to dish out some snide remarks, such as: "I dated a Roomba once. Boy did she suck!" His eyes and head track the person nearest to him, and patrons get radio-frequency identification (RFID) cards that Chapek can use to keep track of what each customer is drinking. "If you come back, he can ask "Another Martini?" or whatever, based on your last drink," Calkins says.
POW! BAM! SOCK!: Zog [right] lands one on Rook's Pawn, sending the other bot reeling in the kung fu event at RoboGames. The goal of the game is to knock an opponent over or out of the ring to score points. Teams get two points for a knockdown; a slip down—a fall with no contact from the other robot—causes them to forfeit a point. If a robot gets clobbered out of the ring or loses control and falls out, that counts for three points. The fights resemble a boxing match much more than kung fu, but kicking can happen. "In general, though, you are much better balanced if you don’t do kicks and if you punch from a side stance," says Chris Farrell, 20.
MEDAL STAND: Rob and Chris Farrell, a father and son team that controls their robotic warriors Zog and Oro, take the silver and gold medal, respectively, in the kung fu middleweight event in 2007. The Farrells had to duke it out for the top prize. Matt Bauer's Rook's Pawn brought home the bronze in the event. (In 2008 teams from South Korea took first and third, and Oro held on for the silver.) In this year's games, the Farrells may unveil two bigger and badder kung fu bots bristling with enhanced programming, nicknamed Kai and Zyn.
ROBO KOMBAT: This match pits The Judge against Ziggy [left and right, respectively]. The Judge, a veteran of the TV show BattleBots, brandishes a metal-bashing war hammer. But Ziggy, a Canadian-built bot, sports a mean flipper that it wields to upend opponents like The Judge, which in this shot is on its way back down to the arena floor after getting the heave-ho. These two have competed in the heaviest combat division for machines weighing in at 340 pounds (155 kilograms) or more. Ziggy has claimed the gold medal in the top combat division three years in a row, and The Judge took the silver in 2007.
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MECHA-BECKHAMS: RoboGames, usually featuring more than 50 different events, heads into its sixth year this June in San Francisco. These robots are part of "Team USA" built by Calkins, a professor of robotics and computer engineering at San Francisco State University. They snagged the gold medal in 2006, though Calkins's team was defeated in a three-on-three match in 2008 by a team from Austria that had borrowed some of his extra robots for the game. In 2007, the biggest year so far for RoboGames, soccer team sizes of three, five and 11 robots faced off (each side in human matches features 11 players). Playing bots vary in shape and size from four-inch (10-centimeter) cubes to two-foot- (60-centimeter-) tall humanoids. Dog bots, which resemble Sony's AIBO, can also play.
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