Robots to feature at Sydney's Big Day Out

Tomorrow’s Big Day Out music festival in Sydney will not only feature popular bands The Killers and Red Hot Chilli Peppers on stage, but will also include several robots battling it out on a basketball court.

The Rebound Rumble will take place at the Sydney Showground and comprise five teams of high school students from NSW, Victoria and Tasmania.

Four robots will take part in a “crazy” basketball game – two against two. The basketball court, roughly the size of a standard court, has been modified to include ‘tipping’ bridges, which the robots have to navigate.

“Robots don’t like to do that very [much] and so they have a tendency to tip over, so there’s quite a bit of skill and engineering that goes into building a robot that can do that,” Michael Heimlich, professor at Macquarie University, told Computerworld Australia.

Robots also have the opportunity to achieve bonus points – four baskets have been placed on the court at different heights. If robots are also able to navigate the tipping bridges, they receive additional points.

Each team was initially given a standard box of parts, such as motors and gears, and a list of competition requirements. For example, teams were only allowed to use certain batteries and given maximum dimensions and weights for how big the robot could be.

Teams also had a $4000 limit on extra parts for their robots.

“The rest is ‘the sky is the limit’ – whatever you want to do to solve the problem, you can go ahead and try…” Heimlich said.

“I don’t want to say it’s all crazy ideas but with only six weeks to engineer a robot, students do come up with some very wild designs and do anything possible that they think they can pull off.”

Heimlich says the robots in tomorrow’s competition are around 1.5 metres high and weigh around 55 kilograms. On an open road they would be capable of moving at up to 70 kilometres per hour, he says.

“They’re very big, very powerful machines and because of that the field is actually somewhat enclosed and separated from the spectators because we want to keep everybody safe,” Heimlich said.

Matches will run every 20 minutes from 10:30am and last 2.5 minutes each – any longer and Heimlich said the batteries in the robots would run out.

The competition is part of the FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program, which is being run by Macquarie University in Australia. The program encourages high school students to develop an interest in science, technology and engineering to study the disciplines at university.

“One of the great things about the FIRST program is that every year the challenge forces the students to go through the very same type of engineering design cycle that real engineers do in industry where they’re presented with a set of requirements and they have a fixed amount of time and a fixed amount of resources to execute a functional solution,” Heimlich said.

The university was initially approached by the music festival's organisers after robotic band Compressorhead joined the line-up, which features a drummer, guitarist and bassist that perform metal covers.

“They started looking around Sydney for other interesting things that are being done with robots and they stumbled upon us,” Heimlich said.

“We sat down and since we’re trying to reach out to the same sort of age group that the Big Day Out has catered to in the past, we thought it was a marriage made in heaven and they could get some more robots and expand the purview of Big Day Out to be something more than just a great rock festival.

“At the same time we could get in front of a lot of young people who tend to be excited about new things and interesting ways to apply technology.”

FIRST was founded in the United States in 1989 and was expanded to Australia several years ago.

The first robotics competition for FIRST in Australia was held in 2010 with soccer-playing robots and another event will be held in June called the Duel Down Under at Barker College in Sydney with 12 teams.

Heimlich said competitions were expanding rapidly and with 24 teams expected over the next couple of years, the university will need to use a dome-sized arena to hold competitions.

“What the students learn when they build a robot is just going to help every possible avenue of life and technology here in Australia, from running the trains to building roads, because it helps teach the students how to think about problems and how to solve them,” Heimlich said.

“While there may not be a lot of jobs in terms of robotics per se, there’s an awful lot of opportunity in the skills that students pick up.”

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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