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Special Report: Robothon 1999

Kevin Ross


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Once a year, the Seattle Robotics Society sponsors a fantastic event called Robothon. This years event was by far the biggest and most successful in our history. With over 80 registered contestants, and well over 150 robots on display, the general public and robot enthusiasts were treated to a truly world class event.

The stage was set at the Seattle Center. Located in downtown Seattle, Washington, the Seattle Center is home to the 1962 Worlds Fair and the city's most unique landmark, the Space Needle. Our event was held inside the Flag Pavilion.

Early in the morning of Saturday, October 23rd, contestants and contest organizers arrived at the Flag Pavilion to setup. The doors were scheduled to open around 10am, with the first contests slated for around 10:30am. Starting at about 9:30, one or two spectators started to show up at the door. Since the event was free to the public, there was really no way to know how many people would arrive, if at all.

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Lining the back wall of the main room, there were tables displaying various robots brought by members of the Seattle Robotics Society. Some were works in progress, many were quite functional, while some were dead on arrival. This was good, since it showed the reality of trying to build your own robot. The displays were very much appreciated by the public as they were able to get a close up look at the parts.

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The information booth near the front door was manned by various SRS members throughout the day, with Linda Lunt doing quadruple duty in helping to sell raffle tickets and helping to hand out information kits to visitors. At 10am, the line had only grown to 15 people, which was a real concern, since we were hoping that raffle sales were going to take care of the expenses. At 10:05, some of us were, well, concerned that only 25 people had arrived. We were hoping to see a couple of hundred!

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The first visitors were treated to a great view of the robot displays, and were able to talk with the builders. Members of the Portland Area RoboTS group (PARTS) were on hand. Mark Medonis had setup an interactive multi-media display that consisted of a servo driven animatronic face driven using a joy stick, complete with a mouth that would speak any words typed into a PC that sat next to his creation. This was a big hit of the show, and had a constant swarm of kids trying to stump the speech program.

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Behind the line of tables, a makeshift workshop area was assembled. Many of the contestants made last minute adjustments to their robots. As with any contest, a few robots decided to stop working just before contest time, sending their builders into panic mode as they tried to determine why the pesky little beasts refused cooperation. With screwdrivers flying, and risky last minute changes to software, most robots eventually made it to their assigned competitions.

There were contestants from all over the northwest, including a team who had driven in from Montana to compete in the Robot Sumo contest. After driving all night, the Montana State University team came ready to enter their Lego based creature, Vader's Ride, into the 3kg Sumo event.

Somewhere around 10:15 am, the flood gates opened and people started streaming in from all over the northwest. They arrived just in time to see a great Mini-Sumo event, staged by Bill Harrison, and full of contestants!

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Bill always runs a great contest, and Robothon '99 was no exception. The main ring was setup on a bright red raised platform so everyone would have a good view. The Mini-Sumo ring took its traditional place atop the main ring. 16 robots competed for the glory of first place. The competition was quite fierce.

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The early crowds were treated to a real show as they huddled around the Sumo ring. Lots of thrilling action really held the audiences attention as the mini robots pushed and shoved their way around the ring. The crowd cheered on their favorites as the robots found each other in the center of the ring.  The crowd erupted into a deafening roar each time a robot was pushed from the ring.

There were two full Sumo contests, with top honors for the Mini-Sumo contest going to Daryl Sandberg and his creation, Brasso. Later in the day, the 3kg Sumo contest was held on the main ring. Daryl Sandberg triumphed once again running his larger Sumo named Boxter. Well done Daryl.

By 11am, all fears of a dull crowd vanished as the crowd swelled to between 600 to 800 spectators. Running two contests at once, the event took on a life of its own. Each event had its own station surrounded by chairs. Each event was packed to standing room only as the robots battled their way through the various events. Between events, the crowd enjoyed looking at the robot displays.

The Dogs

One of the highlights of the show where the dogs. Actually, there were several dogs, though one was truly unique.

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One display had 3 Sony AIBO robotic dogs. These are extremely impressive (and expensive) toys that were developed by Sony, and cost $2500 each, plus accessories. As you might expect, for that kind of money, they made quite an impression on the crowd. Sony spent millions developing these little creatures, and they did an impressive array of tricks. Their owner did several demonstrations, including a dance number where all 3 Aibo's (well, only 2 worked!) did a dance in the floor exercise arena. The Aibo does a fantastic roll over routine. Of course, it also has 18 motors and a 100mhz RISC cpu plus a professional engineering staff to back it up!

The Seattle Robotics Society welcomes everyone into our group, but most of us are homebrew types. While it is impressive to see Aibo, the real star of the show was Rodney. High school student Ryan Wistort showed up around 10:30 or so with his creation. After seeing his robot take a couple of steps, I immediately registered him in the Floor Exercise program. Ryan brought his robotic dog, which prior to registration, didn't even have a name. Because it needed a name for the contest, he chose to name it Rodney, after MIT professor Rodney Brooks.

rodney.jpg (9891 bytes) Real Movies of Rodney in action!

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Rodney the dog uses three PIC microcontrollers to control 8 servos. The robot currently only has a simple gait, but the juxtaposition between the Sony dogs and Rodney really made this project stand out. Creating a robot that can walk isn't a trivial task. 6 legs isn't too bad, but 4 legs requires a bit of coordination. The floppy ears and head aren't functional, but they added that extra amount of class and style that made Rodney a hit of the show.

Rodney was so cool that he was awarded the Best of Show Grand Prize award of a Newton Research Lab cognachrome vision system. We all look forward to seeing what Ryan will come up with for his next project.

So much uncovered

Robothon was a big event this year. It was so big, that I didn't get a chance to see about half of the contests. I apologize to all those cool robots and roboteers that I was unable to document better. Needless to say, this years event has raised the bar for all future contests, and we are excited to start the staging for next years event! With that, we will do a better job of getting our contest documented.

The Results

There are two kinds of results from Robothon 1999. The official results can be found at SRS Robothon 1999 Results. Feel free to browse through the results to see you YOUR competition is next year!

The other Result of Robothon 1999 was a great deal of public exposure to robotics. Many people were quite inspired to learn that these robots were built by folks in their homes during weekends and evenings. Hopefully, we have encouraged at least a few of them to take the jump and to try building their own projects.