Robots in action at Shepherdstown University for third annual RoboFest

March 28, 2013|By CHRIS COPLEY |
  • Audience watches robots at ShepRobo Fest during the 2012 event.
Submitted photo

SHEPHERDSTOWN, W.Va. — In an empty downtown city street, an invader peers around an office tower. The giant four-legged robot towers above a nearby car and semi, abandoned in what has become a war zone hostile to humans.

The robot steps around the corner and see its enemy, another giant robot down the street. The two fire projectiles at each other in fierce combat.

That's the scene in the Mech-Warfare division of ShepRobo Fest, the annual robot competition at Shepherd University. The third annual robot competition is Saturday, March 30, and Sunday, March 31, in Butcher Center on the university campus in Shepherdstown, W.Va. Admission is free with advanced registration.

Seung-yun Kim, assistant professor with the university's Department of Computer Sciences, Mathematics and Engineering, organizes ShepRobo Fest. He said his primary goal is to attract students into the field of robotics, which falls under the umbrella of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs.

"The first intent is STEM awareness," he said. "In the United States, we have a problem (enrolling) STEM students. A lot of people don't like science, math, engineering and technology. By showing them robots, they see it's actually fun."

There are four competitions at ShepRobo Fest — a fire-fighting competition, a sumo-fighting competition, a Lego-robot competition and the Mech-Warfare competition.

Mech fighters are not actually giant sized. When placed in their 13-foot-by-13-foot, scale-model, city-street arena, the robots look big. But they are compact enough to be set on a table to be adjusted and repaired.

Mech fighters fire BBs at their opponents and are piloted remotely using a tiny camera on the robot, mimicking what a real pilot might see from a cockpit on the robot. The robots duel one on one, scoring points for hitting a target on their opponent. Spectators can watch the fight through protective windows around the arena.

By contrast, fire-fighting robots are not remote controlled, Kim said. They must operate autonomously, without any outside help.

"We have set up a maze with four rooms. Judges set up a candle in one room," he said. "Robot must be able to navigate all those four rooms, find the candle and extinguish it."

Sounds easy, but, Kim said it's not that simple. Searching for a small heat source, targeting the heat source and turning it off is complicated. Last year's entries used a variety of techniques to extinguish the target candle flame — blowing air, smacking with a damp sponge, even waving a cloth.

The third competition — sumo — is new this year.

"These are pushing robots," Kim said. "Even middle-school students can build a pushing robot to push their opponent out of the ring to win. We're going to do it as a demonstration this year."

The fourth competition is an unofficial tournament using FIRST Lego League rules. It's unofficial, Kim said, because it doesn't involve all aspects of FLL tournaments.

"There are three different components in official FIRST Lego League contest: There's a research component, a presentation component and the robot competition," he said. "My son was in FLL a few years back. Some kids don't like the research part. So I took the fun part and said, 'Just let's compete.' So anyone who builds a robot can come to us, and compete."

ShepRobo Fest is low-key. The event opens at 10 a.m. on both days so teams can practice with their robots and fine tune its mechanics and programming. Spectators can chat with teams and even operate some of the robots.

Kim said that goes back to the purpose of the competition — to show the STEM programs such as robotics are cool. And a good career choice.

"So the reason I started this was to bring more people into STEM," Kim said. "But I also want to focus on kids staying. By their senior year, students have built at least one or two robots. That's very marketable. Last May, when we graduated our first three computer-engineering students, they all got jobs before they even graduated."

Robotics, Kim said, is everywhere in modern life — exploring space, building cars and electronic circuitry, harvesting fruit, vacuuming household floors. That's one thing he emphasizes when he promotes the STEM program to younger students. People of all ages, young and old, connect to robots.

"When I go to elementary schools, I say, ‘You want to work on cool robots? Just major in STEM,'" he said. "And robotics is a good tool to get them to stay in STEM. Sometimes, it's not easy. The college kids stay in the computer lab until 10, 11, midnight. That's unusual, but they do it. And they have a lot of fun."

Tentative schedule for ShepRobo Fest 2013 at Shepherd University
All event times are approximate
Saturday, March 30
10 a.m. to noon — Open practice for Fire-Fighting, Mech-Warfare, Sumo and FIRST Lego League teams
10 a.m. to noon — Meet with Fire-Fighting and Mech-Warfare robot builders
1 p.m. — Welcome and opening remarks
1:30 to 2:20 p.m. — College Division Fire-Fighting Robot contests, round 1
2:30 to 3:20 p.m. — FIRST Lego League Contests
3:20 to 4 p.m. — Sumo Robot Contest demonstrations
4:10 to 5 p.m. — Qualifying event (testing robots) for Mech-Warfare teams
5 p.m. — Awards ceremony for FIRST Lego League tournament
Sunday, March 31
10 a.m. to 1 p.m. — Open practice for Fire-Fighting and Mech-Warfare teams
1 to 1:40 p.m. — Mech-Warfare tournaments
1:50 to 2:30 p.m. — College Division Fire-Fighting Robot contests, final round
2:40 to 3:20 p.m. — Mech-Warfare tournaments
3:30 to 4 p.m. — Mech-Warfare tournaments
4 p.m. — Awards ceremony for Fire-Fighting and Mech-Warfare tournaments

If you go ...
WHAT: Third annual ShepRobo Fest 2013
WHEN: 10 a.m. to about 5:30 p.m. Saturday, March 30; and 10 a.m. to about 4:30 p.m. Sunday, March 31
WHERE: Butcher Center, Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, W.Va.
COST: Free for spectators, but must register in advance online

Photos courtesy of ShepRobo Fest
Scenes from the ShepRobo Fest in 2012 include, clockwise from top left, an unidentified participant works on a fire-fighting robot that uses a fan to extinguish the candle flame; this fire-fighting robot uses blue the pad to douse the candle flame; spectators line the windows along the “mech-warfare” combat arena. The walking robots are steered by remote control by pilots using a tiny camera mounted on the robot; this autonomous robot must navigate the hallways and four rooms within the maze, find the flame and extinguish it; and a ShepRobo Fest competitor adjusts his walking, “mech-warfare” robot fighter.

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