sparkfun robot autonomous vehicle competition/ combat robotics, boulder 2016

sparkfun➡ ❗ ⭐ 😎 😀 💡 hi all sparkfun 2016 was last wknd sat sep 17th. what a blast! got the big robot fix and geek (over?)dose for a long time.

as mentioned before in this blog (last summer), sparkfun is an amazing company with a lot of really dedicated/ passionate members. its grown massively in only about a decade. they have very impressive warehouse/ facilities with nice features such as several classroom areas.

a huge unexpected highlight for me (got there just in time) was the presentation by Casey Kuhns (aerospace engineer!) and Zachary Goff of the POISON ARROW battlebot. their robot is built incredibly well in short timeframes. they have to glue snap connectors together otherwise they break apart during collisions that have as much kinetic energy as in car crashes. they showed a highlight of launching another 250LB robot 8ft in the air. they also had a flying drone that could shoot down flames. it was impressive to watch but seemed to have a lot of trouble honing in on targets.

to a large room/ ~50 count rapt audience with lots of kids, they detailed the fascinating building and insider/ behind the scenes aspects/ figures of its creation. lots of great/ riveting slides/ videos. they revealed the ABC battlebot cage cost $3M. builders got $10K from the show, and they didnt mention much prizes on the show, it didnt seem to be much of a consideration for them.

Casey said he thinks renewal of the show is about 50-50 chance right now. cross all your fingers it will be back! the show competed against DNC, RNC, and the olympics in time slots, some rather brutal competition in another category. Casey, who has a day job at honeybee robotics which developed some of the sampling devices for the Mars Rover, said he ran up $30K on credit cards before they found a sponsor! casey in his copious spare time also works on refurbishing a jet engine used to fire up helicopters. LOL!

wheres the local media coverage of these brilliant dudes? afaik no newspapers or tv stations have interviewed them yet. right now thats a horrible oversight.

the robot combat competition at the show was phenomenal at times, a huge crowd pleaser with massive audience reaction at times, and a colorful/ dramatic/ humorous announcer/ commentator. Kuhns/ Goff also entered it with a small robot version of Poison Arrow called “spitwad” with Kuhns running the matches. some matches are not so eventful but others in the middleweight class are very exciting with literally sparks flying and the pungent smell of burning rubber, and very high-velocity impacts that slam robots high against the plexiglass walls/ cage with very loud and frightening violence! not for the faint of heart! every spectator had to sign liability forms!

it reminded me of a modern form of the old roman coliseum/ gladiator fights-to-the-death, here with only “more civilized” simulated robot wounding/ gore. humanity has truly come a long way, hasnt it? the robots (always controlled by humans) also seemed to have remarkably animalistic qualities and emergent behavior verging even on “personality”.

some of the robots are very evenly matched. occasionally even a purely defensive robot with no weapon could win matches based on judge decisions, maybe by demonstrating better maneuverability, not sure! another funky aspect, some robots seemed to be their own worst enemies esp those with spinning weapons as their own massive kinetic forces caused them to be self-propelled and sometimes self-damaging on contact instead of being transferred to the enemy. a real live case of “what goes around comes around,” “taste of ones own medicine,” “shooting oneself in the foot” etc…

there were two field hazards in opposite corners, a  buzz saw and a hammer, but they were largely for decorative purposes only because they had little power behind them and rarely caused any robots any problems. but it did add something to the suspense/ dynamics/ crowd-pleasing elements of the matches.

the wall hanging tetris project was cool, searching around on google apparently its now nearly a decade old and has lots of coverage, and also the fun hover pong where paddles are controlled by hand motion sensors was back for another year (quite in contrast couldnt find any pictures of the latter).

the sparkfun blog has a lot of fascinating/ engaging highlights in it, check it out. theres also tons of video of the competition.

Boulder has a fantastic maker scene that has grown a lot over the years and it was great to see so much representation out there. there were also about 3 food trucks with some somewhat exotic stuff eg even grilled shrimp sandwiches. they sold awesome tshirts with the really classy logo from this year. who was that masterful artist anyway?

my only gripe was that most of the autonomous larger robots were, not to mince words here, REALLY STUPID. “artificial intelligence” would be a comical/ ironic misnomer. on the bright side, lots of comedy fodder! they could barely navigate out of the gate typically or much farther. it looks like hardware is far easier than software.

went to an acroname competition in boulder with lego mindstorms nearly ~1½ decade ago and it was the same story. an insider revealed to me that the robots attempt to navigate via dead reckoning. but it seemed like “dead” was the operative word here. another complaint was that one couldnt see the robots navigate with the high ~1½ ft hay bales around them. my suggestion is to use tires with a lower profile instead next year.

the smaller cars did better on their course. highlights: there was a big ~10ft “discombulator” wheel that would spin them out of control. saw a 2-wheel pole balancer (similar dynamics to a segway) navigate the course almost as flawlessly as a google car. in all fairness, the challenge really was not much different than googles autonomous car driving, which is one of the hardest algorithmic problems in the world being worked on by the worlds top software engineers. and (to be fair, what did anyone expect?) its not surprising that unpaid amateurs havent cracked it. but its definitely right on the horizon of possibility.

can imagine these types of competitions could really grow next few years. also robocup in comparison/ contrast/ juxtaposition is quite highly developed at this point. hope that comes to my town some day.

feel lucky/ grateful to have attended! see ya next year!


a. sparkfun

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