Imagine for a moment that you’ve to pick your way through menacing looking metal contraptions with spikes, circular saws, maces, flamethrowers, cutters, flippers, drills, and hammers jutting out their sides.
Next imagine having to dodge them on your way past groups of intense young men huddled in groups by used car batteries, plotting their next move while long lines of electrical wire snake out from their midst, and it’s likely you’ll attempt to hurry past them, unsure and even apprehensive unless of course, you’re the curious type.
Then it’s likely you’ll linger by these menacing machines whose sole purpose in life is to maim and destroy the opposition.
Like the gladiatorial arenas in ancient Rome when man was pitted against man in a fight to the finish, a spectacle watched with bated breath by citizens seated in the amphitheatre in their thousands, so is the spectacle at the SOM Well in the sprawling IIT Bombay campus in Powai year on year when for three days, through successive eliminations of the weak and the ungainly, robots progress through several rounds to vie for the honour of the last robot standing at the conclusion of the Robowars.
The IIT - Bombay, Science and Technology Festival, concluded last Sunday, with thousands of visitors and participants from across India queuing up at the entrance to the IIT Mumbai campus in Powai over three days. Event and visitor registrations ran full through the morning hours.
The first IIT - Mumbai Techfest kicked off in 1998, drawing only a few thousands. This year the annual event marked its thirteenth straight edition. Over 60,000 participants and visitors were estimated to have walked through the gates last year. I expect the numbers to have swollen by a fair bit last week. The organizers, students of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) Bombay, claim the three day event to be the largest of its kind in Asia, and if the numbers of visitors and participants streaming in was any indication then it might well be the case.
The Techfest, much as it is about ideas, learning, problem solving, innovation, technology, entrepreneurial spirit, and even camaraderie, is first and foremost about competition. It is about pride, and as much about winning as it is about defeating the opponent. There're points at stake and prestige on the line.
And Robowars sets the competitive benchmark for the rest. It is where the innovative pit their minds to building fighting machines that can fight.
The organizers of the IIT Techfest set out the rules for the robots you could build, defining the box size, the weight not to exceed 40 kilos. The robots' offensive capability is usually powered by a pneumatic source, and controlled by wires or by remote. The wires are held slack when combating the opponent, and are often the source of downfall as well.
From the steps of the SOM Well I watched from the crowd as one of the robots inexplicably ground to a halt mid-battle. While the flustered team rushed to the transparent enclosure that encloses the fighting square it soon became apparent that the wires they were using to maneuver their robot had come undone on being entangled in their opponent, losing power.
The fight moderator rose from his seat and called on teams to stack the wires into a single unit and insulate it well to withstand the wear. "If necessary, use PVC pipes as protection," he advised. The robots are powered electrically, and the use of IC engine is forbidden.
I watched a robot awaiting its turn in the fighting square, its cylinders primed for action. I assumed some of the robots would attempt to punch their opponent with their pneumatic-driven arms, a ploy I thought would not be as effective as the use of flippers to lift the opponent and render it hors de combat while time ticks away. A robot wins if it can immobilize its opponent for thirty seconds while preventing any linear movement to less than an inch.
Abjiheet had managed to do just that with his robot, the Hell Razor. He showed me his robot as he rested in the shade after a successful bout, relieved at having seen off his challenge to progress to the next round.
He showed me his robot resting at his feet like a living animal taught to heel at a sharp command. Its entrails opened to the sky overhead, deriving its menace as much from its weapons as from the clutter of its components it took no pains to hide.
“The drills at the front of the machine are designed to push the opponent into a corner while this flipper here will lift it and hold it immobile,” he said. It had taken his team 28 days to make the robot and tune it to fighting shape.
Like other aspiring engineers sold on the art and science of Robotics, he had traveled with his engineering college team to Mumbai from Chandigarh (Punjab State) for the IIT Techfest. His brother, Abhishek, was part of the team as well.
Most of the robots on display were fabricated by the students at their engineering labs and workshops, often working on weeks on end. It’s easy to guess the excitement that’ll have marked the building sessions as they grappled with the design and power sources even as the time to put the design to test drew near.
Often participating teams are mix of senior and junior engineering students, and it is likely the seniors are experienced from participating in the earlier editions of the Robowars at the IIT Techfest, passing their know-how to the junior members in the team. Bachelor of Engineering (B.E.) courses in India typically last four years.
Participating teams in Robowars were limited to six members. Some of the teams looked the part with t-shirts sporting the name of their robots on the front, and colleges on the back.
The names chosen for the robots sought to add further menace to the creature, like the Raven that Team Raven from R.R.S. College of Engineering and Technology, Medak, Andhra Pradesh, had entered in the Robowars.
They had a hard start to the day. I happened upon them sweating in the Sun before their turn in the SOM Well arena. A team member I spoke to pointed to one corner of the robot they had leaned over for repairs and said, “There’s a problem with the valve.”
Pneumatic design can be tricky at times, more so in the hurly burly of two combating robots. The robots are allowed to operate pneumatic devices and are limited from using an outlet nozzle pressure of no more than 8 bar.
The Raven was sleek, and resembled a tank. Its entrails were hidden behind solid armour, a contrast to most of its opponents.
Everything about Team Raven looked right. They were dressed for the kill, only they turned out to be the kill.
The team was crushed at the result.
In the late afternoon I picked my way through robots and teams resting after their bouts and made for Team Raven.
“We didn’t make it,” a team member replied.
“What went wrong?” I pressed him.
Pointing to the undercarriage, he said, “The floor in the fighting square was not even in some places. The wheel stumbled and stuck, limiting its maneuverability.”
The Raven had been immobilized as a result.
Even as we spoke I could hear the roars behind me as the audience massed on the steps of the SOM Well egged on the combatants. The elimination rounds were well and truly in progress. With 65 teams from engineering colleges across India having made the shortlist for Robowars, the event promised thrills and heartbreaks in equal measure as each pair of competing teams squared off in the SOM Well.
The Well is entered through two openings in the transparent fighting square, with controlling wires of the two combatants trailing over the wall at opposite ends.
Before the combat the teams check their respective machines outside the transparent enclosure before carrying it through the door to the fighting square. Like in a boxing ring the battle commences with the two robots ‘meeting’ in the centre of the square.
What follows next is attempted mayhem as weapons are unsheathed to loud clangs, their movement controlled by teams outside the enclosure, excited, nervous, and tense in equal measure.
The crowd watches every move, cheering their favourites on as cameras flash.
Even as the SOM Well ebbs and falls to the raucous cheers of the audience watching Robowars, in the pavilion located on the approach to the SOM Well, robots of another kind are engaged in showing off their skills and combating one another in CROSS_OVER.
Here, students are crowded along a perimeter watching participants snap bridges open in an open Arena and have a remotely controlled robot drive over it and negotiate the Arena.
The challenge is to create a “manually controlled machine which crosses a pit and competes against another robot in a one on one knockout event.”
The Arena in turn is divided into four zones, each zone presenting a navigation challenge. The competing pairs of contestants are expected to design a slide-open bridge that bridges Zone C to allow the competing robots to navigate from Zone A to Zone B before negotiating Zone D to the finish line. The Bot quickest to the finish line eliminates its competing Bot and progresses to the next round.
Each competing unit in the event was made up of two machines, a bridge and a traversing Bot, the latter controlled remotely, and the former launched mechanically. The bridge had to snap across the pit quickly to allow the Bot to traverse / cross it. It presented a challenge to the students.
The contestant was allowed the option to control the bridge remotely or using wires. However the machine / Bot traversing the bridge had to be controlled remotely.
Awaiting their turn in the shade of a resting area, teams were seated on the floor testing their machines. The bridge offered a greater challenge. Any delay in snapping open would mean the traversing Bot got off the blocks late.
A buzz enveloped the venue as final checks of their machines kept the participants awaiting their turn at course in the CROSS_OVER Arena.
Others settled around open circuits, oblivious to the heat of the mid-day Sun while they grappled with last minute issues, worrying over their machines.
Many have traveled over long distances to participate in the Techfest, carrying along machines they’ve fashioned back home, hoping to win.
Even so, to know they’ve competed well will go a long way in helping them believe in their own ability. It is a springboard that education seeks to achieve.
The rest as they say is up to destiny.
1. IIT – Mumbai Techfest, 2010
2. IIT Techfest - Robowars
3. IIT Techfest - Cross_Over Arena