Robots ready to rumble

RoboGames in San Francisco gives machines a chance to show their stuff in contests from sumo to soccer. Photos: Let the robot games begin

Richard Shim Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Richard Shim
writes about gadgets big and small.
Richard Shim
4 min read
SAN FRANCISCO--Homemade robots packed in wooden crates lined the walls at the San Francisco State University gym, as Nicholas Hotary and his father, Kevin, checked out the competition while assembling the last parts for "Funnel Cloud."

"What do we get if we win?" asked 7-year-old Nicholas.

"We get a medal," said the hopeful 46-year-old research scientist from the University of Michigan.


What's new:
Participants and fans have converged at RoboGames in San Francisco to see robots show their stuff in contests from sumo to soccer.

Bottom line:
The annual robot competition is a way for creators to learn and share knowledge. The ultimate goal: to develop robots that can do more tasks that only humans can do.

More stories on this topic

"Is that it?" his son quipped.

Learning and sharing knowledge are the goals of the second annual robot competition called RoboGames, formerly Robolympics. That might sound hokey, but it's something that doesn't happen enough--to the detriment of robotics, said David Calkins, president of the Robotics Society of America and organizer of the event.

"The participants never really talk to each other, and they have so much to learn from one another," said Calkins, also a professor of robotics and computer engineering at San Francisco State University. "At something like this, people can cross-pollinate in different disciplines, since they're all in the same place at the same time, when so many new things are going on."

At RoboGames, 650 participants compete in a number of categories, from combat to sumo. For each event, Robots must have different specialties, which take time for their builders to learn and hone. Robots for the soccer event, for instance, have standard hardware--four Sony Aibo robot dogs--and require more programming skills than those for the combat events, which need more mechanical know-how. By combining both sets of skills, robots can be programmed to react to completely new situations and physically respond.


Ultimately, the goal is to create robots that can do more tasks that normally, only humans can do.

"We're working to make them smart enough to work in an environment they don't know, in hopes of making them more useful," said Walter Nistico, a Ph.D. student from Germany.

While it will be some time before robots can do everything humans can, they're already being used in certain situations, such as search and rescue operations, surveillance and manufacturing.

"Some of the basic research for those activities is being done at events such as this," said Luca Iocchi, an assistant professor at the University of Rome.

Nistico and Iocchi have been working on robots to participate in the soccer match. They say there is a challenge within the scientific community to create humanoid robots by 2050 that can compete

against humans in a soccer match. Their inspiration comes from Deep Blue, the supercomputer that challenged chess master Garry Kasparov in the late 1990s.

People from 15 countries have come here to take part, and the competition is growing--the number of entrants is up 20 percent. Furthermore, they're not all gearheads.

"I'd say only 20 percent are engineers. The rest are lawyers, students, teachers and hobbyists," Calkins said.

Roman Vaisberg and Dan Rupert, a student-teacher team from San Diego, created their Body Slam robot in six months. This is their first time attending RoboGames. Body Slam scoops up robots with its mechanical arm, then slams them down.

Vaisberg said that while learning how to make robots and having fun are important, his team is here to win. It is, after all, a competition.

"It would be upsetting to throw out tons of time and money, not to win," said 18-year-old Vaisberg.

Calkins said that's the way it should be viewed, in order to draw more attention to robots and engineering.

"This is a competition, and while there is some money involved, people do this for the love of the sport, and that should be cultivated," he said.

Those who win medals in events are given some prize money, but not enough to cover the expense of building a robot, which can cost several thousands of dollars, depending on what the robot does.

But there are other ways the competition pays off, contestants say.

The Hotarys began designing their Funnel Cloud robot, which flips and pushes rivals, in September, after being inspired by last year's games.

"We caught the bug last year, when we went from being spectators to deciding to jump in and compete," Kevin said. Nicholas "didn't sound impressed, but it's really amazing how much he knows now, because of what we went through to get our robot ready."