I have just returned form the Rise of the Robots event at the National Space Centre in Leicester. Just one of many specially themed weekends they hold, this proved a great success for exhibitors and guests alike. Visitors were able to experience a variety of robotic experiences from the mayhem of Robot Wars to the more genteel charm of a range of walking robots made by David Buckley. Naturally, there was room for micromouse. The space tie-in was provided by the presence of a particularly scary set of Daleks…
Stars of the show were probably the Daleks and the various Doctor Who fans present. It seemed that everywhere you went there was a Dalek – often chasing or being chased by thoroughly entertained (or alarmed) children. Small groups of children could be seen trailing after the Doctor to assist him in his task of battling the evil enemy. Somehow, I just couldn’t help grinning when ever I saw one. You could be minding your own business and suddenly, out of the corner of your eye, you would catch sight of a Dalek gliding ominously by. "Wow! A Dalek!" The thought came unbidden into your head. Years of conditioning from watching Doctor Who since childhood give Daleks a really menacing air. I saw a good number of adults secretly sidle up to one and try to find out more. As it was not possible to tell if it was occupied, this occasionally resulted in the familiar Dalek shrieks and suitably surprised victims. If you fancy making your own, visit the Project Dalek Site where you can download plans and talk to other builders.
The centre of the main museum exhibition area provided the perfect location for a robot wars arena and regular battles were held throughout the weekend. Some familiar names from the televised Wars were setting about each other with typical enthusiasm and appropriate violence. Nearby a school team demonstrated their prowess with Lego Mindstorms robots playing football on a very convincing digital football pitch.
A special exhibition area had a range of activities. David Buckley had a remarkable collection of robots he has built over a good number of year. David creates marvelous robots from apparently simple materials. Easy-to-program controllers, radio control servos and plywood come together to make walking robots that fascinated everyone who saw them. See for yourself here: David Buckley
Across the room were the Ant Weight Robot Wars machines. These are radio-controlled robots that are miniature versions of their full-sized cousins in the main arena. Although small enough to sit in your hand, you wouldn’t want to get too close to one when it is in action. Displaying a ferocity that totally belies their size, these robots tear around their miniature arena inflicting surprising damage on each other and everything they touch. Find out more: Antweights and Robot Combat.
Next to them were the minisumo teams. Minisumo pits fully autonomous robots against each other in a circular area. These robots have to find their opponent and push it out of the arena. This is a mixture of cunning and brute force although the aim is not the violence of the robot wars competition. Opponents are pushed out so plenty of grip and strong motors are key to doing well. It is acceptable to to have a wedge or scooped front to try and lift the opponent off the floor and break their grip but flipping and any kind of weapons are forbidden. Good sensors and fine motor control are needed if the robot is to be able to locate and home in on a moving target that definitely does not want to be found. Plenty of information can be found at the minisumo.org.uk site.
Last but not least was the micromouse area. We brought along a maze and about a dozen micromice. My new mouse, Decimus, was there as well as most of its predecessors all the way back to the very first mouse I built that was able to find the centre of the maze. Derek Hall brought along MouseX and its successor as well as some of the PICone maze solving mice. The maze, several AIRATs and a surprising array of other robots and equipment were brought by Tony Wilcox of the Technology Innovation Centre (TIC) in Birmingham. The micromouse competition is, of course, the focus of this site so have a good look around if you want to find out more.
All in all the weekend was a great success. We hardly had a minutes break as a stream of inquisitive children and their parents stopped by to find out more about the various competitions and the robots involved. All the visitors had the opportunity to get closely involved by operating the robots, modifying the maze and generally having a good fiddle and poke at everything. I for one quickly learned not to underestimate the average 11-year-old when it comes to getting to grips with what we were all up to and there were some very searching questions. Many parents also seemed very interested and I am sure that there will be more than a few people giving some though to how they might get involved in building robots.
Our hosts, the National Space Centre were excellent. We were well fed and watered throughout the weekend and the staff always helpful and responsive. We shall certainly be interested in attending a similar event in the future.