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2003-04-11 16:11:31.92111+00 by Dan Lyke 5 comments

Finished Gearheads: The Turbulent Rise of Robotic Sports, and we're going to go (with a few boys in tow) to the book signing on Saturday evening down at Fort Mason. Recommended. I'd wondered about the politics behind Robot Wars and Battle Bots, I'd heard that the founder had gotten pushed out, and I'd always wondered why Survival Research Labs wasn't more involved. This book told that narrative, was a quick read, inspiring, talked about the philosophical rift between the combat robots community and the FIRST folks, and pointed out that remote control ain't all there is. Well worth a read.

[ related topics: Books Robotics Bay Area Community ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2003-04-11 18:58:01.346516+00 by: Diane Reese [edit history]

Could you summarize the "philosophical rift between the combat robots community and the FIRST folks" referred to in this book? Having just spent a grueling 2 months as Team Mom for a rookie-year FIRST team (which did amazingly well at their 2 regional competitions, by the way, and learned far more, in many areas, than I'd ever anticipated), and having followed BattleBots in the past, I'd be curious what this book is highlighting (other than the obvious, where FIRST encourages cooperative competition, and discourages, and even penalizes, outright violence against your opponent's bot). Ask me about FIRST if you need some first-hand experience (ahem). (By the way, this year's FIRST "game" had 3 phases: Human Player Mode, Autonomous Mode, and Remote Control Mode. An interesting mix of skills and strategies required.)

Sounds as if I should put it on my list of "soon-to-read"s, though...

#Comment made: 2003-04-11 19:08:15.992859+00 by: Dan Lyke

Two things:

  1. The "FIRST encourages cooperative competition, and discourages, and even penalizes, outright violence against your opponent's bot" is a big deal. Woodie Flowers et al seriously snubbed the combat robotics community, refusing to even get together to chat. There's some bad blood there, mostly on the FIRST side.
  2. My impression is that FIRST is about autonomomy, the combat robotics folks are still mostly about remote control. But a lot of the art robot folks are still about remote control, at the EroSHAMBO[Wiki] performance I went to the guy sitting next to us observed that "these folks really need to discover microcontrollers".

The book is worth a read because it filled in a lot of gaps about the personalities for me.

#Comment made: 2003-04-13 15:26:25.738686+00 by: Diane Reese [edit history]

OK, I'm bidding on an eBay copy of the book now. The party sounds decent last night: wish I could have finished my taxes and gotten up there... Regarding FIRST:

  1. For high school kids (the intended participants in FIRST), whose experiences tend toward kill-the-competition responses in pretty much all phases of life (sports [if they're into them: I don't happen to know any that are], computer gaming, girlfriend acquisition...), I found it pretty refreshing to watch them try to figure out how to play to win, but not totally crush their opponents or alliance partners. It was a more complex challenge for them, and encourages them to be more decent human beings overall. As a parent, I like that. I don't want them to be namby-pambys, but I do want them to be aware of the consequences of their actions and successes on others, and don't want them to take out their frustrations on a failing opponent, however tempting it might be to do so. These are our future leaders we're training, here. "Gracious professionalism" does not imply "don't try to win".
  2. My understanding is that this was the first year that FIRST's game statement included a significant autonomous portion. I have no experience with prior years, but my readings indicate that the kids were excited to finally have autonomy to play with also. (Gave the programmer kids more to do. And it was cute to hear them fussing about how their "AI" wasn't working right...) I saw the EroSHAMBO performance, too, and after working with the high school robotics team, I was a bit disdainful about those art bots. With a little extra work and a high school robotics kid in tow, it could have been much better.
By the way, yesterday was the finals of the 2003 national FIRST championship. I watched part of the webcast of the finals: if you want to peruse the archives and see what goes on, NASA is keeping a set here.

#Comment made: 2003-04-13 16:00:27.118114+00 by: Dan Lyke

You could just wait 'til I see you and I'll give you my copy; I don't think I'm going to interest Zack in it too soon, alas.

Oddly, as the book tells it, the FIRST rift is mostly on the side of the FIRST folks. The robot combat folks are (and this is from personal experience as well as the book) generally really outgoing and friendly. I haven't seen 'em at competitions, but my impression is that there's a lot of sharing going on in the pits.

Odd that there wasn't autonomy beforehand, because there have been a lot of really complex LEGO Mindstorms[Wiki] competitions based on autonomous behaviors (the "collect and sort the balls" competitions and so forth), and the long-held Trinity College Robot Firefighting Competition (held today, but your kids might want to think about it for next year) is about autonomy.

Given the whole DARPA Challenge thing, I've been wondering about getting a few people together to do some sort of autonomous navigation task that could be done on R/C car chassis or something affordable and light.

#Comment made: 2003-04-13 16:52:02.997471+00 by: Diane Reese

Yes yes, the firefighting competition! This has already come up in discussions: it's on the list of "maybe we should try this for our next challenge" items. So many great ways to use your robotics skills, so little time and resources...