Going for gold in robot Olympics
FORGET the Olympics, who needs athletes when you can have actual men of steel – that is, robots – battling it out in the sporting arena? The action at the robot games, held at At-Bristol this week, may not be quite as fast-paced as their human equivalents in the Olympic stadium – the humanoid robots for instance seem to play football in complete slow motion. But it is no less exciting, once the pressure is on.
With everything from football to basketball, and weightlifting to climbing represented at the games, it is a truly international affair – with 202 participant robotics engineers representing 27teams from across the world.
Much like the Olympic Games, organising bodies have to bid to host the competition and Bristol emerged victorious thanks to the work of the Bristol Robotics Laboratory (BRL) – the largest robotics lab of its kind in the UK, which is a joint research project between the University of Bristol and UWE Bristol.
It is the first time the UK has ever hosted the annual event. Competitors are descending on the Harbourside venue from as far afield as Mexico, Canada, India, China, South Korea, Malaysia and Taiwan.
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But the UK has two teams competing – one from the BRL and the second from the University of Plymouth.
Tension is high as teams put the finishing touches to their robots before the public are admitted and the competition begins today.
But it's fair to say that the most ardent competition is between the two UK-based teams.
"Have you seen Bristol's robot yet?" asks Peter Gibbons, from the Plymouth University team, as he introduces me to his own robot – a rather endearing bipod, wearing real baby trainers.
He's clearly disappointed to learn I've not yet seen the opposition and can't be quizzed about the details.
"We have been developing our humanoid robot for the last five years, so we're old hands at these games – we've travelled the world with our robots," he says. "But this is the first year that the Bristol Robotics Lab has entered a humanoid robot, so we're all keen to see what they have produced."
Peter invites me to pick up the Plymouth robot to feel its weight, and I can't help but pick it up under the arms, as if I'm lifting up a toddler.
"It's why humanoid robots are so important to us," Peter explains. "People connect with them, because there is a natural instinct in our brains to connect with little people.
"The other big competition at the games is the Mirosot robots – they're effectively little boxes with wheels on them. They are much quicker and more effective football players, but people don't make that anthropomorphic connection to them.
"They're also much more simple in their design. In essence, when we're building a bipod each joint is as complex as one of the single-unit Mirosot robots."
Hundreds of spectators are expected to watch the events unfold in At-Bristol, with entry to the games free of charge across the next four days.
Dr Guido Herrmann, from the University of Bristol, led the Bristol bid and hopes members of the public will make the most of the opportunity to see world-leading robotics on their doorstep for free.
"We are looking forward to welcoming teams from around the world to Bristol," he says, as he scurries around the venue making frantic final preparations.
"The competition promises to be both exciting and insightful, pushing the boundaries of robotics to the limit. This will be a fantastic opportunity for the public to see just what autonomous robots are capable of achieving.
"In many ways these games are far more than sport – they are a showcase for the way robots are growing in sophistication, as they become evermore important both in industry and eventually in the domestic environment.
"Although very different to the Olympics, it's another opportunity to show the world just what Great Britain is capable of – both as event hosts and being pioneers of engineering."
Downstairs in one of the At-Bristol labs, the Bristol team is loading some of the final lines of programming via a laptop to their robot, the exotically titled Panther.
"We don't have the years of experience that Plymouth can boast, but we're still rather pleased with him," says Louis Kempton, 22, a mechanical engineering student at Bristol University.
"We won't really know what he's capable of achieving until he's out there performing, and then it's entirely down to him – these robots are autonomous. We can program them to respond in certain ways to react to different eventualities, but once the games are under way, all we can really do is to stand back and watch."
Fellow team member Dave Pollard, a 20-year-old aerospace engineer at Bristol University, says: "We have high hopes for him in the marathon – we think he has the staying power to complete the longer races, which are scaled-down from the human equivalent of course, but are still a real challenge."
Louis adds: "The best way we can build a humanoid robot in some ways is to look at the human anatomy – to see how our bodies have evolved to meet different challenges, and to engineer the robots from there."
The FIRA RoboWorld Cup takes place at At-Bristol, Harbourside, until Saturday, 10am to 6pm today, 10am to noon tomorrow, 10am to 6pm on Friday and 10am to 4pm on Saturday. Entrance free. For more details, visit the website www.at-bristol.org.uk.