January 28, 2010

Robowars at IIT Mumbai Techfest, 2010

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.

“What happened?”

“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.

Related Links:

1. IIT – Mumbai Techfest, 2010
2. IIT Techfest - Robowars
3. IIT Techfest - Cross_Over Arena


Riot Kitty said...

I think I'd be a bit out of place there, but my husband would love it!

Lynn said...

I have never heard of such a thing! Thanks for this peek into another world.

Anil P said...

Riot Kitty: There were many other events happening at the Techfest as well, including several lectures, eco-friendly exhibits etc.

Lynn: For three days towards the end of January each year, the techfest does offer a peek into another world.

Coffee Messiah said...

Years ago in SF, we saw the first of these kinds of events (my son and I) and it was interesting to see more adults than kids.

per your previous post, Thanks for the link. Funny Detroit being so close and us never hearing about that farm. Also, farmers out here anyway have seen the ethanol busy-ness as a way to cash in on their crops. Sadly, they do rotate, soy and corn and there's wheat too. But the fact is, the biggest corn field, cannot produce enough corn in any one area, to keep the manufacturing aspect running. So it is brought in by trucks and trains from outside the area, which makes saving energy, well, not really saving at all.


Anjuli said...

what a delightful event- and the pictures helped capture the atmosphere. My son would have been in seventh heaven if he had attended.

Anil P said...

Coffee Messiah: The robot events are fun, more so knowing that the students have created the robots from scratch, often sourcing scrap material.

Out here in the engineering colleges any How to Make a Robot workshop will run full.

Per you reference to my previous post: I can only hope that should there be a food shortage, governments around the world will change their priorities to producing food.

Like you rightly implied, energy needs, unlike food needs, will rarely plateau, and hence trucks and trains will keep coming into the picture.

In India, more so in the Deccan, many farmers have taken to Sugarcane farming, partly because it is profitable, with sugar factories, mostly owned by politicians, their outlets.

As a result there's an increasing demand for water to sustain the sugarcane crop, often in places where there's an acute water shortage. The farmers drill to the water table for their sugarcane crop.

I believe not all of sugarcane goes into making jaggery or sugar, some of it is diverted to liquor as well.

Much of this comes at the cost of other crops, like Jowar etc.

And when sugar prices dip they suffer losses, especially since the sugar lobby relies much on sugar exports to rake in the profits.

Anjuli: Thank you. I'm sure he would have, few things stir imagination as much as gadgets do, more so if fabricated by the students.

Nisha said...

IIT has been pioneer in many things and anything to do with robotics fascinates people no end. This Robowar is no different.

Your account as usual is very interesting.

dr.antony said...

Excellent Post. Being a Physician,I cant get much of the excitement of the tech jargons,but always had a curiosity.You have covered an event in an almost professional manner.These youngsters need all kinds of encouragement,and this is one such gesture.

Ida/FarEastLogbook said...

My dad would have loooooved this event!!
Love the little white/blue robot ;-)

Anil P said...

Nisha: Thank you. Many of their (IIT) alumni have indeed gone on to pioneer things after passing out. No wonder admissions to the IIT are among the toughest in the world.

Dr. Antony: Thank you. Students from colleges from all over India participate in the techfest.

Each year they eagerly await the techfest to happen, keeping a lookout for the last date of registrations to the IIT Techfest.

Ida Nielsen: I'm sure he would have. It was fun out there.

radha said...

That was interesting. And to think so much thought and work goes into the making of the robot. These youngsters really are terrific.

What About The Girl? said...

Oh look at those spectators eagerly awaiting the winner(s)!
I admit this is out of my league.
However, I find robot names quite interesting actually!

kestrel said...

That is cool, I would have thoroughly enjoyed the Techfest. I would have embarassed myself cheering the kids (?) or maybe more like young adults. We also have such competitions among high school and Uni studnets and their contraptions are beyound me, very interesting post

Anil P said...

Radha: Creating / Making a robot is an involved process, more so one that'll fight its opponent. Robot / Robo movement is fashioned out of 4 x 4 wheel drive concept.

The students from engineering / technical colleges wait for announcement of dates for the IIT Powai Techfest each year.

Robowar competition is keenly fought, followed, and watched.

TGF Cherry Blossom Street: The steps of the SOM Well are always full, students watching two robots fight each other, cheering one against the other as the two teams try to get their robot to win. There's prize money for the Robowar winner as well.

Robowars event is one of the highlights of the IIT Mumbai Techfest.

The names of Robots are actually meant to menace other Robots :-)

Kestrel: There are many other competitions at the Techfest as well, in addition to the Robowars that is. The young adult students come prepared for other events as well.

Thousands stream through the gates of IIT Powai campus during the three-day Techfest. Registrations to Techfest events take place near the entrance gate itself.

Sarah Laurence said...

Robowars are fun. Bowdoin College here in Maine hosts one where robots play soccer. Given the difficulties robots face in competition, I don’t see them taking over the world anytime soon. I did love the book I Robot as a child. Playing is a great way to learn.

Anil P said...

Sarah Laurence: They are fun. Out here, colleges compete with one another for points and wins, Robowars being one such event.

Artificial Intelligence has a long way to go still before it can claim, even in some small measure, that Robots can take over the world someday :-)

Creating Robots and playing is indeed a great way to learn.

Pink Mango Tree said...

So, how do u define "Machine"? (hope u have seen 3 idiots) :) :)

Anil P said...

$$: Yes, I've seen it. And I do not think I can improve upon Amir Khan's definition of machine :-)

Nishank said...

Hi Anil..

I just came across this post of yours today itself. It was really amazing to read such an amazing account of the Robowars. More so since you captured the core vision with which we started the event(I was the Manager for the event in 2010).
This year dates for the techfest are out and it is scheduled from 7th-9th January 2011. Looking for your presence and take on the events for the coming edition as well.

Anil P said...

Nick: Thanks, Nick. Much appreciated. I might make it to the Fest in Jan. I find the atmosphere vibrant and inspiring. Are you going to be a part of the 2011 event as well?