Beyond BattleBots: The Evolution of Robot Competition

Fun & Games Robotics Technology
Beyond BattleBots: The Evolution of Robot Competition
An audience member at RoboGames is entranced by robot dance moves. Photo: Dave Schumaker
An audience member at RoboGames is entranced by robot dance moves. Photo: Dave Schumaker

Yes, we know, BattleBots is back. And we love it. But sometimes smashing and burning and cutting and flipping stuff isn’t what you’re into. While BattleBots and the like have waxed and waned and now come roaring back, many other competitions have chugged along in academic and military settings, from the DARPA challenge to RoboCup. RoboCup is a robotic soccer competition with the stated goal of contributing to a team of robots that can beat a team of humans by 2050. (They have a long way to go.) HuroCup (the humanoid robot cup), a yearly competition founded by Jacky Baltes in 2002, features soccer too, as one of eight events designed to drive true adaptability among artificially intelligent robots.

This is like the decathlon for robots. The variety of events, which includes, among others, a 420-meter marathon, an obstacle course, and a game of basketball, are designed in pursuit of a truly humanoid robot. Every competition is autonomous — your robot must have everything it needs to complete the task without input. Most competitors build their bots from scratch, but modified DARwin-OPs are a popular choice in their weight class.

“If you come up with a single task, then you would never end up with a humanoid robot,” says Baltes, a professor of computer science at the University of Manitoba. “To play soccer on a flat field, wheels would be much more efficient.” That said, soccer is one of the events at HuroCup. To make a robot play soccer, you have to worry about locating the ball and mapping the field, but also locomotion (bipeds are hard), balancing, terrain, and more, even up to complex motion planning, which is kind of like problem solving. Humans have almost infinite possible movements available to us, and we’re really good at inventing new ones if standard ones don’t work, says Baltes. For example, opening a door with your elbow if your hands are full.

Those challenges are compounded when you need one robot to perform varied functions. Designers need to balance battery life for the marathon with heaviness for the sprint.

A robomagellan robot can self-navigate through an outdoor course to find a hidden orange cone, at RoboGames. Photo: Daniel Craig
A robomagellan robot can self-navigate through an outdoor course to find a hidden orange cone, at RoboGames. Photo: Daniel Craig

But wait, there’s more; HuroCup keeps piling it on, with four-day competitions held in different locations, and terrain designed by whoever is hosting.

“We go to this completely unknown place where the environment is outside of our control, it’s all based on what the local organizers build,” says Baltes. While you’re building, you make a million design decisions that are influenced by the lab, he says. The thickness of the carpet, the distribution of lights, and the color of background all eventually influence the kind of system that you build, and even simple alterations to the environment can be big challenges for a robot. “Those kind of experiences are extremely useful for building robots that are really robust and adaptable to a new environment,” he says. “This adaptability, to me is the crucial part of intelligence.”

Though RoboCup is more uniform and dialed in — and thus, less of an expression of adaptability — it’s got unique challenges too. The rules require robots that only use the same inputs as humans, or analogs thereof: Visual camera, accelerometer/gyro, Wi-Fi for communication. Their funny gait, with tiny steps, helps them maintain friction with the surface. The more advanced teams do some rudimentary passing and interaction, or at least stay out of each other’s way. Unlike BattleBots, all robots are completely autonomous.


RoboGames, though best know for its combat, is also sort of a robotic decathlon. “The combat is what draws the crowd,” says David Calkins, founder of RoboGames. That’s where their event coverage focuses, but RoboGames comprises 54 total events, modeled after the Olympics. “That competitive environment forces contestants to work harder and build better things.”

Ultimately, that’s the purpose of these competitions. Can a bipedal robot put a little ball through a goal before another bipedal robot falls on it? Maybe. Can that robot then go pick something up, and carry it somewhere? Now we’re getting to something we can use. And although HuroCup competitors are mostly made up of university students and research labs, other competitions are increasingly open to the hobbyist. Not coincidentally, it’s become easier and cheaper to get drones, robots, and the components to build them. Much of it is based on open-source software and hardware. Servos are cheaper, parts can be easily 3D printed, and, Calkins says, one year’s fans are the next year’s competitors.

Kids show interest in RoboGames' sumo robots. Photo: Ariel Zambelich
Kids show interest in RoboGames’ sumo robots. Photo: Ariel Zambelich
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Nathan Hurst is an editor at Make. He loves anything having to do with science or bicycling. He tweets as @nathanbhurst.

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