Tech Know: ABU Robocon 2002

Humans and machines alike head to Tokyo for the first annual Asian robot competition. Steve Trautlein pulls up a seat.

Although the motto of the upcoming Asian Broadcasters Union robotics competition is "Reach for the top of Mt Fuji," don't expect to see mechanical men planting a flag atop Japan's highest peak anytime soon. As was the case with the participants in the recent RoboCup soccer tournament, which aim to compete with their flesh-and-blood counterparts by the year 2050, such a distinctly human accomplishment is a far way off. Instead, the action from Tokyo's Komazawa Gymnasium that's to be broadcast by NHK on August 31 involves ball-slinging 'bots scurrying across a map of the fabled mountain.

"The purpose of the Robocon is to cultivate young engineers and promote international friendship, as well as to enhance the quality of program production in the Asia-Pacific region," say the organizers. And as a regional competition showcasing the ingenuity of Asia's brightest university students, the first annual event is already a success. Over 100 participants are to descend on Tokyo for the one-day competition,
and demand for the 2,400 tickets was so great that they had to be sold via lottery.

 

Global reach
Fittingly, this event grew out of a yearly contest held in Japan and sponsored by its national broadcaster, NHK. Hoping to build on the success of those games, which were open to university teams throughout Asia and which had been drawing an international field since 1988, NHK reached out to its sister broadcasters and devised an annual competition for university students that will travel abroad starting next year.

The ABU itself is a confederation of national TV and radio stations that stretches from Katmandu to Cairo. Such a prominent sponsor ensured that the word got out to all the leading technical schools in the member nations, and, thanks to the televising of qualifying matches, the interest for the finals in Tokyo is strong. Twenty teams from 19 countries are slated to participate (as the host country, Japan gets to field two squads), and the combined potential viewership of the 25 ABU countries is an astounding three billion.

 

The game is on
Perhaps because the competition will rotate out of Japan next year, the organizers of the upcoming Tokyo event gave it its Fuji flavor. A large map of the mountain will be laid out on the gymnasium's floor, with 17 tubes of various topographically correct heights jutting out of its surface. A large cone at the center marks the summit. The goal is for each team's robots to fill the tubes with as many beach balls as possible in three minutes. Competitors square off two at a time, with the winner moving on in a single elimination format.

Teams are comprised of three students and one faculty member, but only one student is allowed on the pitch to operate their robot during play. Each machine must not measure more than 1.2 meters long, 1.2m wide or 3m high, and each must weigh less than 40kg. Such limited dimensions demand versatility from the engineers, but the payoff is great. "This competition requires strength in many fields, including mechanical design, computers and electronics," says Thavida Maneewarn of King Mongkut's University of Technology Thonburi's M.E.M.I Team, which is representing Thailand. "A number of our current graduate students were competing in this event before, and now they make a great contribution toward robotics technology in our country. Most of them acquired practical know-how during the competition."

 

The road to Robocon
Interest in past Robocons was so intense that by now most ABU-member countries have in place a playoff format to determine their lone representative. In Vietnam, 3,000 spectators packed Ho Chi Minh's Tan Binh Culture and Sport Centre to watch the home city's Polytechnic University triumph, while Indonesian qualifying featured 23 machines from 15 universities, twice the number of the year before. Fittingly, teams and their designs often embody the particularly Asian traits of industriousness, collaboration, ingenuity-and Buddhism. Nepal's Tribhuvan University's fields a 'bot called the SID-SCORPION 4. "SID signifies the Lord Siddhartha, known as a symbol of peace, and SCOPRION represents, more or less, the shape of our robot," says team member Suraj Pande.

That's not to say the competitors aren't serious about winning, though. In Japan, emotions rose after a bitterly contested qualifier. "Winning at the ABU Robocon is the only thing in our minds," said Ryuji Kobayashi of the Kanazawa Institute of Technology after his team finished second in the playoff. "Even though the local championship title was snatched by the TUT [Toyohashi University of Technology] team at the final match, we will vindicate our honor at the ABU Robocon!"

Maybe it's a good thing that machines will be flinging rubber balls-and not each other-from the heights of Mt Fuji.

The first annual ABU Robocon will air 11am-5:30pm August 31 on NHK's Satellite 2 (BS 11) and Digital Hi-Vision channels.

For more info, see www.abu.org.my/programme/robocon/robocon.htm

Photo courtesy of NHK

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