Spirit of the Competition

September 22, 2009 - 3:44 pm Comments Off

While I was sitting and waiting for batteries to charge, I started thinking about the “Spirit of the Competition”. It is a phrase that I have heard quoted in virtually every engineering competition I have been in. I am approaching twenty engineering contests (Robot Wars, Battlebots, Robotica, FIRST, DARPA Grand Challenge, Regolith Excavation) and there always seems to be three types of contestants in each. The first is the purist who attempts to create an entry that satisfies not only all of the written rules, but the stated intent of the sponsoring organization. The second is a builder that has a design in mind and only modifies it to satisfy expressly written rules. The final type is the participant that starts by pouring over the rules looking for unintended holes to exploit. Unfortunately, the more inexperienced the sponsoring organization, the more type three participants there are.

In Battlebots, for example, the purist builds robots that are not only effective, but satisfy the unstated goal of being highly entertaining. These robots rarely win but they get lots of attention. An example of this robot type is Nightmare. This robot is a crowd favorite but tends to destroy itself in matches. As an example of the second type of builder, Biohazard is the most decorated and successful Battlebot. It is mostly defensive with just enough offense (lifting arm) to flip other robots. Many bouts involving Biohazard only last a few seconds and result in an inverted robot that cannot move. Highly effective, but not very entertaining to the general public.

Sadly, Battlebots has seen it share of the third type of builder. I was heavily involved in the creation of the Battlebots rule set and we struggled between the need to keep people safe and the desire to allow builders as much flexibility as possible. The most challenged rule we had was the rule that allowed walking robots to have a 50% weight advantage over wheeled robots. Many people tried to create a mechanism that looked like it was walking but really was effectively a wheel. In the early days of Battlebots, prospective walking robot designs were sent to me for review. I rejected virtually all of them. Somewhere along the third year, Battlebots stopped asking me to review designs and somebody showed up with a 330 lb. heavyweight that he claimed was a walker but was really a kinematically segmented wheel. With the extra 110 lbs, the vehicle had a spinning weapon with enormous destructive power. He breezed through the heavyweight class (the toughest of all in the competition) until the finals and then had an epic battle with Biohazard (which he won). After that event, Battlebots was forced to change the rules about walkers.

Theses three classes of builders carry over even into pure academic competitions. In talking with other FIRST mentors, I have discovered an almost a universal trait on teams. There are some students (and advisors!) who spend enormous effort trying to find holes in the game rules. There have been robots that show up at a regional competition and discover their borderline legal method of scoring is outlawed on the spot. It makes for some very unhappy students.

That brings us back to the Regolith Excavation Challenge. This year, we all have a pretty good idea what NASA wants. A truly mobile excavator that could collect enough regolith to help construct a lunar base and keep that base supplied for years. Unfortunately, it is not practical for the contest form to mimic a realistic mining field. If they increased the size of the regolith box to 10m by 10m to better reflect more available area, they would need 6 times more regolith and 6 times more time between competition attempts to compact it (90 minutes). So we end up with a 4m by 4m box and rules are put in place to try and produce entries that take the form NASA wants.

Those of you who are active on the forum saw that I challenged many of the rules (and lack of rules) early on. I (like others) was trying to get the more obvious holes closed. I knew that $500,000 is a lot of motivation for somebody to skirt the edges of the rules. Looking at some of the questions asked revealed a lot of the builder’s intent. Things like:
• “If my vehicle is underweight, can I start with regolith in it?”
• “Can I satisfy my traversal requirements by putting my reference point on the end of a rod and having that rod fall down?”
• “I only have to cross the traversal line once, right?”
• “My stationary powered conveyer system that moves regolith to the box is really a navigational aide, and therefore exempt from the traversal rules”
• “I have a two part robot, a scout (RC rar) and a stationary digger. The car is my mobile part.”
It will be interesting to see what designs passed the initial inspection. I am sure that there will be some lively discussion at the event for those designs near the edge.

Despite the paragraph above, I am looking forward to seeing all of the innovative designs. I always learn things at engineering contests and usually find a way to use that information in the future. I am hoping CSEWI has things under control and that we all have a pleasant experience.

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