Robo Sumo - Let the battles begin!

DIT hosts the 2012 Robo Sumo Grand Final 2pm, May 10th in DIT Kevin St.

4th May 2012: In a large, sparsely-furnished workshop in Dublin city centre, not far from the bustling activity of Camden St, a group of people stand in a huddle shouting, whistling, clenching their fists. In their midst stands a black circular table on which an epic battle is being contested. The combatants are not human - they are two small robots, each no bigger than a lunch box. These robots are so-called automatons - robots that sense their own surroundings and make decisions about what actions to perform. In this case, each robot has been carefully programmed to hunt down its opponent and push it out of the arena. And these robots are tenacious - tirelessly scuttling back and forth, spinning in search of their opponent, charging forward to propel it off the table. Each parry and thrust of the tiny robots is met with cries of joy and anguished howls from the spectators. That the crowd are emotionally invested is beyond question. They call this RoboSumo and it’s an international phenomenon.

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In fact, this heated contest is no more than the warm-up training session before the real contest which will take place in early May in DIT Kevin St. That day will represent the culmination of three months of intensive work by about 25 teams of engineering students. In groups of two, three or four, these young engineers have designed, built, tested and refined a cohort of battle-ready automatons. There is something eerie about watching these robots navigate around the table under their own direction. Some waltz elegantly, while others lurch aggressively; all are purposeful. It’s easy to imagine that in the autonomous movement of these painstakingly constructed robots, a glimpse of a future is visible; a future in which ever smarter robots will play an increasingly important role in all our lives. 

RoboSumo is very different from what a lot of people picture as engineering education. Rather than delivering a course of lectures based on a fixed curriculum, learning takes place primarily in a lab or workshop. Lectures are delivered as needed to address learning needs that students encounter in the course of their work. This “problem-first” approach allows students to appreciate the value of each thing they learn, since they already have a practical context to apply it in.

In project-based learning, students’ learning is driven by a practical goal, a problem they work in teams to solve. Teachers become facilitators, creating an environment in which students naturally grow their own knowledge. The element of competition taps into students’ natural instincts. It’s not that the effort is removed from learning - the students know they’re working hard to create something great - but RoboSumo provides a context in which many students find that motivation comes naturally. Learning becomes hard to resist.

Of course, the choice of problem is critical to the effectiveness of project-based learning. The RoboSumo challenge leads students on a journey of discovery through an Aladdin’s cave of the incredible technology that powers modern smart devices.

The teams that perform best in RoboSumo are those with the abilities that make for successful technology entrepreneurs - in short, the ability to work hard, work smart and work together to turn an original vision into reality. Brainstorming, critical thinking, teamwork, and resourcefulness - these are all stepping stones to great robot design - but above all else, RoboSumo is a practical challenge. DIT prides itself on its track record of combining academic excellence with the real-world application of knowledge. To create a good RoboSumo robot, a team will have to take the theory they have learned and apply it in a world of uncertainty, far outside the walled garden of blackboard examples and textbook exercises. They will have to grapple with budgets, contend with component failures, scavenge parts, and most of all withstand the unpredictable assault of another team’s robot.

The 2012 RoboSumo Grand Final takes place on Thursday May 10th at 2pm in the Gleeson Hall in DIT Kevin St.

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