Robotic Entrepreneurs

As homemade metallic robots battle it out and sharp metal spikes and saws provide obstacles to their goal of ultimately immobilizing the competition, non-stop action and entertainment abound. BattleBots, a robot combat event started by Trey Roski and Greg Munson in 1999, became a series on Comedy Central in the summer of 2000. The popularity of this new TV show mirrors the worldwide rise in popularity of robotic sports as an entertainment alternative to wrestling, hockey and boxing.

Taped in June in front of a wildly cheering live audience, contestants competed against each other as they operated their homemade robots by remote control from the sidelines, trying to outdo each other with their machines. Robots of all shapes, sizes and special effects are entered. "We are extremely excited to have our competition televised nationally on Comedy Central," said BattleBots creator Trey Roski. "Combat sports like BattleBots are America's best kept secret and this partnership will go a long way towards exposing the country to the excitement and adrenaline that accompany our competitions." The series was an immediate hit with all ages.

The second BattleBots event to be filmed by Comedy Central was held November 1719, 2000. I was in attendance, checking out not only the incredible display of robotic designs, but the entrepreneurial spirit associated with robotics in general. The robot builders themselves are the innovators of the future, but equally innovative is bringing the events into national attention through the televised competition. BattleBots is a fascinating cross-section of nerds and sports enthusiasts. The nerds calmly doing last minute repairs to their robots, the sports enthusiasts yelling for their favorite as the robots do battle.

Robotics, already a critical part of the world economy, is projected as one of the major areas for economic growth in the future. Competition gives students an exciting look at possible future careers while providing financial support for innovative work and great entertainment for the viewers. In a quick search of the internet more than 30 events surfaced, ranging from highly structured events for high school students to major international events providing competition over a wide range of possible robot designs.

The entrepreneurial attraction of robotics and robotic contests is threefold:

  1. Sports Enterprise:
    Robotic contests are drawing a tremendous following among sports enthusiasts; robotic contests are essentially a new venture in sports

  2. Robotics Enterprise:
    Development of new designs, new applications, and innovative uses for robots. There are also a variety of spinoffs from the development of robots including websites, books, kits, and supplies.

  3. Entrepreneur Education:
    the world is learning about robotics and its entrepreneurial aspects; youth are being encouraged to develop entrepreneurial skills

Robotic Enterprise

What is a robot? The answer tends to vary depending upon the specificity of the author. Robotics International of the Society of Manufacturing Engineers (RI/SME) provides this definition: "A robot is a reprogrammable, automatically-controlled, multi-functional mechanism which can be integrated into a system and interact with its environment by acquiring and processing sensory data to perform various tasks." While quite specific, it isn't clear what type of machines fit.

A simpler, more understandable definition comes from Academic Press Dictionary of Science and Technology: "Any mechanical device that can be programmed to perform a number of tasks involving manipulation and movement under automatic control. Because of its use in Science Fiction, the term robot suggests a machine that has a humanlike appearance or that operates with humanlike capacities, in actuality modern industrial robots have very little physical resemblance to humans." This definition also encompasses those remote control cars that are sold in toy stores - and they are indeed very modest robots.

Robots has more widely used than many people are generally aware. Most major manufacturers currently use robots in some part of their operations. Robots are used widely in the aerospace, astronomy, automation, automotive, chemical, construction, electronics, engineering, environmental, health, heavy equipment, industrial marketing and software, machine tools, material handling, measurement and control, metals, mining, oil and gas, packaging, photonics, power and energy, plastics and polymers, pulp and paper, telecommunications, and wireless industries. Robot designs are usually grouped into mobile robots, manipulator robots, integrative robots, small inexpensive robots, and entertainment robots.

Ways in which you can be entrepreneurial with robotics is to sell your own designs, consult with businesses on using robotics in their operations, sell kits, supplies, books, or develop any other type of spinoff business. Robotics is one of the fastest growing occupations in the world. The range of possible applications is immense. Simply developing a new application for an already developed robot is an entrepreneurial adventure in itself. Most robotics professionals have a degree or substantial courses and/or experience in engineering. Computer professionals are also involved through simulations and analysis.

Some of the current innovative work being done is in the field of artificial intelligence. The field of artificial intelligence, or AI, attempts to understand intelligent entities. Thus, one reason to study it is to learn more about ourselves. AI strives to build intelligent entities as well as understand them. There are four goals in AI. Developing systems that think like humans, systems that think rationally, systems that act like humans, and systems that act rationally.

BattleBots Competition

Imagination and creativity are the hallmark of all the robot competitions. Many of the competitors are entrepreneurs in their own right. Most of the student competitions are geared towards encouraging interest in robotics as a way to build new technology and business; i.e., to encourage scientific entrepreneurship. Robotics is also truly international. Not only are there numerous events around the world, but local events often attract international competition.

The event I attended was the November 2000 BattleBots Robot Combat Championship. There were robots entered from all over the United States, Canada, Japan, and the United Kingdom. BattleBots contestants design and build radio controlled robots that employ an array of destructive weapons such as hammers, saws, and spikes. The competition is held by four weight classes: lightweight (rollers 25-58 lbs, walkers 25-87 lbs), middleweight (rollers 59115 lbs, walkers 88173 lbs), heavyweight (rollers 116110 lbs, walkers 174-315 lbs), and super heavyweight (rollers 211-325 lbs, walkers 326-488 lbs).

The goal is to knock out (totally immobilize) your opponent within three minutes. If both robots are mobile after three minutes, a panel of judges awards score based on aggressiveness, amount of damage caused, and strategy. There are two match types - a robot duel which is a one-on-one tournament and robot rumble which is a free-for-all combat. All events are held within a specially designed arena that protects the audience from flying parts and provides additional challenges such as buzz saws that rise from the floor and hammers that slam down unexpectedly from the corners.

The robots come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. The most popular are the spinner (circular in shape with projectiles around the outside), the wedge (shaped like a door stop - good for flipping over opponents), and various boxes with wheels, saws, and arms for flipping. Many of the entrants are veterans of multiple contests and are superb robotics experts.

One of the outstanding entries in the November 2000 competition was a huge snake that undulated around with a spinning awl on one end and sharp pinchers on the other end. At the other extreme are first time "fun" entries that are essentially revved up toys. One this year was simply a remote controlled truck towing a trailer made of legos. That entry did not make it beyond the first elimination event.

This was clearly a fun event to attend. Let's take a look next at some of the other types of contests being staged.

Other Robotic Contests

Contests vary widely in specifications for the robots and the types of competitors attracted. Here is a description of some of the events held around the world.

6.270 Autonomous Robot Design Competition: a hands-on, learn-by-doing class open only to MIT students.

Aerial Robotics Competition: sponsored by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems, International. The All-Japan Robot Sumo event: billed as the world's largest robot competition with 3000 robots entered.

Chicago BEST: an annual competition in which local high school students team up with local businesses.

BotBall: teams of high School students have six weeks to design, build, and program a mobile robot. This event is sponsored by KISS Institute for Practical Robotics (KIPR), a private non-profit community-based organization that works with all ages to provide improved learning and skills development through the application of technology, particularly robotics.

Fire Fighting Robot Contest: The entrants must build a computerized (not radio-controlled) robotic device that can move through a model of a single floor of a house, detect fire (a lit candle) and then put it out. Robots that consistently accomplish this task in the shortest time win.

FIRST: "For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology". An engineering contest offered in the U.S. and Canada in which over six intense weeks, students and engineers work together to brainstorm, design, construct and test their "champion robot". Each year, the competition is different, so returning teams always have a new challenge to look forward to.

International Festival of Sciences and Technologies: France's big robot competition includes walking machines and Soccer

Techno Games 2000: a spectacular televised event in the United Kingdom in which teams and individuals design, build and operate 'mechathletes' (robots, machines, and mechanical devices) to compete in a number of recognized 'sporting' events. The competition, which could also be described as 'The Technology Olympics', is designed to test the ingenuity, creativity and mechanical mastery of Britain's schools, colleges, universities and businesses in a fun and at all times inspirational fashion It is hoped that subsequent competitions will feature international participation.

Manitoba Robot Games: large Canadian competition featuring atomic hockey, robotic sumo wrestling (Western, Japanese and Open), robotic "seek and capture", mini-tractor pull, and robo-critters.

OCAD Sumo Robot Challenge: the competition is open to everyone, and is sponsored by the Ontario College of Art & Design, Integrated Media Program. The classes of robot competition are sumo classic, sumo clever, robot dancer, sumo autonomous, sumo lightweight.

RoboCon: a Japanese event consisting of a college of technology section, broadcast by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation, a University World Championship, and an International Design Contest.

RoboCup: International Robot Soccer competition.

Robot Battles: annual robotics competition staged at Atlanta's Dragon*Con science fiction convention.

Robot Games: sponsored by the San Francisco Robotics Society of Americas and the Exploratorium, competitions include events for traditional and Lego robots.

Singapore Robotic Games: eleven different competitions including legged robot race, wall climbing, and robot battlefield.

SME Student Robotic Challenge: student robotic engineering competition sponsored by the Society of Manufacturing Engineers.

Trinity LEGO Cybernetics Challenge: a United Kingdom event in which involves a game of robot Volley Ball between teams of two robots built using Lego Mindstorms

USA Robot Sumo: Japanese champions come to the US.

Western Canadian Robot Games: Canada's premier robotic event includes Robot Sumo, BEAM, and Robot Hockey.

As you see, there are events for all kinds of interests. If you have an opportunity to attend one, it is inspirational and fun. Robotics enterprise is most definitely one of the hot growth fields of the future.