CIR­CUIT BREAKERS

For­get Trans­form­ers. David Daw­son gets in the ring with China’s real- life ro­bot war­riors机器人格斗大赛点燃科技热情

The World of Chinese - - NEWS -

机器人对战:不只是娱乐

Meet the en­gi­neers and fans of one of China's most un­likely growth sports: ro­bot fight­ing. Af­ter years play­ing catch-up to US elec­tronic know-how, some of the coun­try's top hob­by­ists and tech en­trepreneurs view bot bat­tles not just as en­ter­tain­ment, but as in­cu­ba­tors for fu­ture tech tal­ent

When Fang Lei first went into com­bat, he brought Thor’s Ham­mer with him. But Fang made a mis­take that was to prove trag­i­cally fa­tal. “We for­got to as­sem­ble one of the parts,” he said.

A heav­ily ar­mored ro­bot de­vel­oped by Fang’s team, the Mr. O. Ro­bot Fight­ing Club, Thor’s Ham­mer’s defin­ing fea­ture was, in­deed, a ham­mer-like weapon wor­thy of a ro­botic Norse god. Its thick ar­mor might have been able to de­flect the worst ef­fects of its op­po­nent’s hor­i­zon­tal ro­tat­ing blade, but the team had a more press­ing prob­lem to con­tend with.

“Our ro­bot was over the weight limit, so we had to re­move the ar­mor on the sides,” Fang said. By the time the match be­gan, the ham­mer was gone too—due to tech­ni­cal trou­ble— leav­ing a ro­bot with no pro­tec­tive plat­ing and limited av­enues for at­tack. “As a re­sult, our wheel was bro­ken by our op­po­nent and we lost all the matches af­ter that. We felt heart­bro­ken,” Fang said.

Fang’s team is among dozens in China—and soon, it’s hoped, the world—par­tic­i­pat­ing in Ma­jor League Fights (MLF), the robo-fight­ing tour­na­ment se­ries run by the Fight­ing My Bots (FMB) league. Founded in 2015, FMB is at the fore­front of a push to take China’s ro­bot com­bat global. But if their en­trants seem ill pre­pared, that’s prob­a­bly be­cause it’s all a bit new—at least in China.

FMB’S first event was in late 2016 and or­ga­niz­ers have been cob­bling to­gether rules and re­quire­ments for matches ever since, while try­ing to main­tain some flex­i­bil­ity in terms of ro­bot de­sign.

These ef­forts will kick into high gear in Au­gust, when an MLF warm-up event takes place in Guangzhou. A FMB tour­na­ment will fol­low in Septem­ber in Xi’an, be­fore or­ga­niz­ers set their sights on the fi­nals in Oc­to­ber.

Ac­cord­ing to FMB’S of­fi­cial web­site, the goal is to move be­yond tour­na­ment leagues and “make the fight­ing ring an in­cu­ba­tor for sci­en­tific, hu­man­is­tic, and artis­tic in­no­va­tion.” The plans in­volve

turn­ing FMB into an “en­ter­tain­ment me­dia brand” pro­duc­ing re­al­ity shows, live broad­casts, and tele­vi­sion dra­mas, while pro­vid­ing workspaces and ven­ture cap­i­tal for a “com­pre­hen­sive eco-sys­tem of ro­bot-themed in­no­va­tion.”

Chi­nese fan site Ge­doumi (“Com­bat Fa­nat­ics”), which cov­ers mar­tial sports in an oc­ca­sion­ally na­tion­al­is­tic tone, com­plained that, at the height of US se­ries Bat­tle Bots’ pop­u­lar­ity in the early 2000s, “the sit­u­a­tion in China was a vac­uum,” with ro­bot mêlées limited to stu­dent hob­by­ists.

An­nounc­ing FMB’S lat­est tour­na­ment in an April 2017 ar­ti­cle ti­tled “Chi­nese Com­bat Ro­bots Have De­clared Against Ja­pan and the US!” the site crowed “the teams’ imag­i­na­tion is not in any way weaker than for­eign teams.” His­tor­i­cally, though, China’s ro­bot­ics in­dus­try has been in de­fault catch-up mode to the US.

Xianx­ingzhe (先行者, “Pi­o­neer”), China’s first bipedal hu­manoid ro­bot, was un­veiled in 2000 to some fan­fare in China and amuse­ment abroad due to its vin­tage ap­pear­ance and rudi­men­tary func­tions. The same year saw the launch of the coun­try’s first ro­bot­ics com­pe­ti­tion, the China In­tel­li­gent Ro­bot Con­test (or xpart­ners Cup), fol­lowed by nu­mer­ous ro­bot­ics tour­na­ments, few of which fo­cused on com­bat.

The Robocup China Open, first held in 2006, in­cluded events from safety-and-res­cue ob­sta­cle cour­ses to soc­cer tour­na­ments (an event broad­cast on CCTV). There are also reg­u­lar wa­ter polo matches fea­tur­ing elec­tronic fish, and ro­bot chef tour­na­ments.

An FMB tour­na­ment in Nan­chang, Jiangxi, in April 2017 was the first to fea­ture other coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to FMB or­ga­nizer Chen Xin. Teams from the US, Brazil, and Turkey, some of them vet­er­ans of the in­ter­na­tional ro­bot cir­cuit, were among 40 com­peti­tors, some spon­sored by cor­po­ra­tions, with 10 en­gi­neers and de­sign­ers work­ing be­hind the ro­bots’ ring­side con­trollers. But many are ama­teur out­fits, who work in ro­bot­ics but en­ter com­pe­ti­tions on their own dime.

As Jiang Jun, the en­gi­neer on Fang’s

team, points out, each ro­bot fighter can cost around 30,000 to 40,000 RMB to build, dis­count­ing la­bor costs. While the team com­pete for cash prizes of 15,000 RMB in the 15-kilo class or 40,000 RMB (60 ki­los), most are in it for the love of the sport as well as the chance to hone their robotcraft­ing skills.

At this stage of the sport, de­sign op­tions are still flex­i­ble, with less em­pha­sis on lim­i­ta­tions and more on fair play: Mag­nets or Elec­tro­mag­netic Pulses (EMPS), which would fry the elec­tron­ics of any bot in the vicin­ity, are not al­lowed. Liq­uids are not per­mit­ted—you couldn’t at­tach a wa­ter pis­tol to your ro­bot—but a flamethrower is fine. An­other rule bans any ob­jects in­de­pen­dent of the main body of the bot—no pro­jec­tile weapons, or mul­ti­ple ro­bots act­ing as a swarm.

The re­sults are de­cided by judges—if one ro­bot is in­ca­pac­i­tated and the other isn’t, that’s an easy de­ci­sion, but once a match goes on for three min­utes, then the judges must de­cide which put up a bet­ter fight ac­cord­ing to their cri­te­ria.

Chen says that the rules ba­si­cally fol­low the prin­ci­ple of be­ing fair and open.

“Our aim is to pro­mote ro­botic tech­nol­ogy, so we ad­just our rules based on this, in or­der to en­cour­age the par­tic­i­pants to use the new­est tech­nol­ogy,” Chen said. “Once we find any­one breaks the rules or ex­ploits loop­holes in those rules, our judges can re­spond ac­cord­ingly.”

And the tech­nol­ogy can scale up pretty fast, with plenty of room for in­ven­tion and rapid evo­lu­tion as weak­nesses are dis­cov­ered. Take, for ex­am­ple, the com­mon “wedge” de­sign, fa­mil­iar to any ca­sual viewer of tele­vised tour­na­ments such as the BBC’S long-run­ning Ro­bot Wars.

Given the fact most ro­bots are wheeled, a handy counter-strat­egy is a flat ro­bot with a slanted front that can sim­ply ram and flip the op­pos­ing ro­bot, leav­ing it as help­less as a tor­toise. The wedge de­sign is easy— some wheels un­der a flat plat­form to max­i­mize sta­bil­ity, and no weapons needed—and very dull. But while it may be ef­fec­tive against most wheeled ro­bots, it sud­denly runs into trou­ble when fac­ing off against a drone with a down­ward-fac­ing flamethrower.

Yes—ro­bots are per­mit­ted to fly, and even if a fly­ing flamethrower doesn’t suc­ceed in to­tally in­ca­pac­i­tat­ing the help­less wedge, scorch­ing it might be enough to give the win.

“The ro­bots are get­ting more and more so­phis­ti­cated,” Chen points out. “In terms of the tech­nol­ogy… it’s al­ready be­yond many peo­ple’s imag­i­na­tion.” This ad­vanced tech is be­ing rec­og­nized in the ring, as FMB CEO Zhang Hon­glei told Peo­ple’s Daily On­line in April. “The prize for best tech­nol­ogy tar­gets spe­cific types each year,” Zhang said. “In 2016, the prize tar­geted multi-ped ro­bots and those with two arms.”

The next step is greater au­di­ence en­gage­ment. A match in Bei­jing in April was broad­cast on CCTV 5, but, de­spite in­creas­ing cen­sor­ship and restric­tions on video con­tent, on­line stream­ing is al­ready prov­ing ef­fec­tive at tar­get­ing the rel­a­tively young au­di­ence that’s happy to watch ro­bots bat­tling it out on a mo­bile screen via plat­forms such as Youku and Bili­bili. FMB’S me­dia out­reach has been sur­pris­ingly in­ter­na­tional given their rel­a­tive in­fancy, with nu­mer­ous FMB­fo­cused dis­cus­sions ac­tive on Red­dit, in­clud­ing clips of pre­vi­ous fights.

Mean­while, Chen points out that next year, FMB hopes to dou­ble the num­ber of fights, with a New Year’s event planned in the trop­i­cal get­away of Hainan Is­land af­ter the fi­nals in Oc­to­ber. Or­ga­niz­ers hope that the sky’s the limit—although fly­ing ro­bots have al­ready made their de­but.

Far big­ger than the ac­tual bots used in the FMB matches, Ya­man­taka, built by a Shang­hai ro­bot­ics com­pany in 2016, is a func­tional com­bat bot oc­ca­sion­ally used for spec­ta­cle

Ro­bot fish play­ing wa­ter polo at the 2013 In­ter­na­tional Un­der­wa­ter Ro­bot Com­pe­ti­tion in Ningbo

Rushed re­pairs and in­spec­tions are com­mon be­tween matches

A drone-bot roasts its op­po­nent

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