Aside from breaks for meals and sleep taken in shifts, contestants in a two-day robotics challenge in Lenexa worked continuously until their robots were deployed in an obstacle course, which the machines would navigate autonomously.
The Kansas City Open Hardware Group’s first robotics challenge started the morning of July 18 and challenged local competitors — five four-person teams made up of competitors from all age and experience levels — to build an independently controlled machine in fewer than 36 hours, nearly all of which were used.
To minimize down time, competition organizers catered the contest and provided hammocks and couches, which were sometimes used for a seated exchange of ideas but were more often the site of in-between-inspiration naps.
Sometimes, the amenities hosted both collaboration and the putting up of feet.
“What if we built a ramp on to it with, like, a wall at the top,” said Atchison, Kan., freshman Cody Rosebrough, partially wrapped in a green hammock.
Rosebrough was spitballing ideas on how to win a robotic shoving contest a la sumo-style fighting with teammate Andrew Appel, a Kansas City senior web developer. A ramp would get under the enemy, the younger, newly minted robot designer reasoned, giving their robot the advantage.
“I’m thinking a sonar sensor to detect the enemy” robot,” Rosebrough said animatedly while lying in the hammock as the sun set on the first day of the challenge.
As he got up to check a regulation with a contest judge, the high-schooler took his infectious energy with him, and 46-year-old Appel, having worked since morning, suddenly looked every bit like someone who had worked for almost 12 hours straight and sunk into an office chair.
“I’m getting tired,” he said. “I’m not like I was when I was 25.”
Still, Appel looked surprised at the time, a little after 8 p.m. when he was thinking it was still 2 p.m.
The ability for the robot to push in the sumo challenge is just one in a laundry list of talents the robot would have to have.
The robot would have to follow a line, navigate an obstacle course and herd balls into a small soccer goal, all of which would have to be done without either Appel or any else at the controls. All instructions were to be given in computer code in advance.
The amount of time the teams were given was to not only build the robots, but to construct code that tells the robot what to do with the input coming in to the sensors: If something is seen at 20 centimeters away, do this; if you see another robot in the sumo ring, push it as hard as you can.
Appel said it’s easy to lose hours inside just the computer engineering challenge.
“I enjoy solving puzzles, so that’s kept me engaged,” he said.
Contest organizers hosted a voluntary lock-in with the competition. Competitors were free to come and go as they pleased, but more than a few worked past sunset.
All the teams got different robot kits.
A four-man team of Rob Giseburt of St. Joseph and three of his nephews, Eli Lombardi, Gian Lombardi and Caleb Lombardi, was dealing with a particularly challenging high-mounted body, a bit like a miniature farm spreader that somehow had to have a grayscale sensor mounted to it low enough to detect and follow a black line. The team discussed modeling and making one in a 3-D printer.
“We’ll probably be here most of the night. I might not sleep,” Eli Lombardi said in a throwaway fashion just after dinner was served at 6 p.m.
What distinguished this robotics contest from others was that contestants could modify their designs with parts and custom pieces to make their particular robot design work for them. The contestants were building with what’s known as “open hardware,” a class of electronics and machinery engineered to be modified to user needs and customizable. On the other side is a patented design, something with a fixed and legally protected design.
Another team also had an issue with inadequate power coming from the stock battery from the robotics kit.
If this weren’t an open hardware contest, that would be a fixed, non-negotiable design element.
Because it’s open hardware, Giseburt and the guys went out and picked up a radio-controlled toy battery and wired it on to the robot.
If this weren’t open hardware, “we’d have definitely voided the warranty,” Giseburt said.
Kansas City Open Hardware Group chief Hal Gottfried has organized an annual conference since 2013. The one-day summit gathers open hardware experts and enthusiasts from its 1,500-member pool.
The 2016 local open hardware conference may feature the summit alongside the robotics speed build, but Gottfried said he wanted to showcase the technology’s possibilities in application this year through the contest.
The contest was as much a showcase of new technology as a crash course in tomorrow’s critical job skills.
“I don’t want to (my nephews) to get to my age and not know how this stuff works,” Giseburt said.
A time is coming soon where “labor isn’t going to be worth as much as the ability to drive a robot,” he forecasted. “Look at a Tesla factory: the whole thing looks like ‘iRobot.’”
Tim Middleton, a contest participant and Lawrence 3-D printing teacher, assured all interested that the open hardware group was many magnitudes away from accidentally creating “The Terminator.”
“Currently, the amount of code in these things gives them a capacity nowhere even near say, an ant,” Middleton said.
Yet, there’s an uncanny combination of wonder and a dash of creepiness that follows watching a robot and realizing that it knows where in space it is.
Late in the day on day one, Giseburt and his nephews had succeeded in instructing their four-wheeled robot to turn when it sees a cone marking the end of the field. It turns like it has an actual brain, like it has a sense of itself.
“But it’s not, you know, sentient or anything. Nor can it self replicate,” Middleton said.
“Self-replicating bots are not allowed,” Gottfried called from the end of the room.
Giseburt and his nephews would walk away with first place. Middleton and his team would come in second.
Winners received an awards package that included a voucher to electronics outlet Sain Labs, the contest’s lead sponsor, and access to the Hammerspace Community Workshop, a Brookside DIY lab and maker space, among other prizes.
All contestants got to keep the robot kits.