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No shortcuts taken at robots roundup

The next generation of engineers and scientists uses real computing language to help their robots reign

katemckissickby Katie McKissick
robot competition
Students check out the competition while waiting for their 2014 Botball seeding round contest. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

More than 70 teams from five countries took part in this year’s Global Conference on Educational Robotics at the Galen Center.

Enthusiasts of all ages gathered for informational sessions and lively matchups, including the International Botball Robotics Tournament and the International Elementary Botball Challenge.

Win or lose, they produced something. They’re running it.

Ross Mead

The annual conference, hosted by the KISS Institute for Practical Robotics (KIPR), gives students, educators and professionals an opportunity to connect, share ideas and discuss the latest advances in robot technology.

It also provides a forum for teams to pit their robots against one another in head-to-head competitions. This year’s events focused on assistance in physical rehabilitation as robots were tasked with helping the Botball mascot, Botguy, perform rehabilitation exercises such as putting hangers on a bar, demonstrating one of the many practical applications of robots in the future.

Real programming languages in use

Ross Mead, Botball organizer and computer science doctoral student at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, was inspired by the next generation of scientists and engineers. From kindergarteners to high school seniors, the students are building and programming robots — and not with visual programming shortcuts or simplified programming platforms but with the real computing language used by researchers and professionals.

“A lot of times people say that kids will not be able to understand real programming languages,” Mead said, “and it’s not true, and we’re showing that.”

He added: “Win or lose, they produced something. They’re running it. Everything you see here are their own design, building and programming efforts. It’s 100 percent by the students. It’s 100 percent autonomous robots. And it’s 100 percent real code. No other educational program can say that.”

’Bots on the board

Each robot placed on the competition table was unique, with different armatures to accomplish the tasks of picking up the plushy Botguy and putting hangers on various bars. Many were built atop an iRobot Create Programmable Robot. Mead noted that iRobot — a Botball sponsor — provided the robot as an option for the students to use as a mobile platform.

Botball Tournament

Students work on their robot at the 2014 International Botball Robotics Tournament. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Competitors placed their robots on the starting platform of the game board and positioned gooseneck lamps to illuminate a light-sensitive sensor on their robots. Since the robots were entirely autonomous (as in, not remote-controlled), that’s how the robots were informed that the competition had begun. The judges then initiated an automated countdown procedure to turn on the lights, and the robots came alive, moved around the game board, positioned hangers and picked up Botguy.

Once everything was in motion, teams cheered on their robots, hoping the code running each one would equip it to make the right decisions and complete all the tasks. And the excitement was infectious.

For high school student Chloe Grubb, the highlight of the event was the friendly community.

“You’ll see a lot of teams helping other teams, spending time with other teams and trying to get them to do well because everyone here wants to see everyone succeed.”

For Steve Goodgame, executive director of KIPR, the social aspects of the conference were just as important as the technical skills.

“My favorite part is watching the kids during the social interaction,” he said. “They’re here with like-minded peers, and I know they’re creating lasting friendships.”

Sponsors for the event included USC Viterbi, the National Science Foundation, USC Civic Engagement, the USC Viterbi Department of Computer Science and the USC Viterbi STEM Consortium.

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