Thu, Sep 15, 2016 - Page 13 News List

Punches of steel

Contestants at the Robot Boxing Competition have evolved their fighters considerably over the past five years that organizers have to continuously make rules stricter and challenges harder

By Han Cheung  /  Staff reporter

A robot gets knocked down during competition.

Photo: Han Cheung, Taipei Times

When Lu Tsung-yung (盧聰勇) held the first Robot Boxing Competition five years ago, more than 40 of the 62 constructions couldn’t even walk successfully.

“Basically, if you could even make your robot take a step, you won your round,” Lu laughs.

Nine competitions later, Lu says the mechanical gladiators have become so advanced that he has had to enlarge the ring and is thinking of another expansion. He’s also thrown in new challenges during last weekend’s event it was slope descending, which not a single robot passed.

“We’ve had the robots ascend and descend stairs for the past two years and the contestants seem to have that figured out already,” Lu says. “So I added the slope. When someone figures that out, we’ll mix it up again. It’s brutal. What you see here is five years of evolution.”

LIKE HUMAN

Held at DMP Electronics (瞻營全電子股份有限公司), an electronics and robot parts company in Hsinchuang District’s (新莊) industrial area in New Taipei City, this competition — unlike often depicted in movies — is no simple slugfest between two bumbling metal stiffs.

Set to a soundtrack of intense video game-esque speed metal, robots under 3kg deftly maneuver around the ring, throwing punches and kicks, dodging and grappling while shifting their weight around to avoid a knockdown. It’s fast-paced, entertaining stuff to watch, complete with a referee yelling out the results. At the end of the three-minute round, the robot that gets knocked down by a legitimate attack the fewest times wins.

To score a “down,” the attacker has to remain standing. But referee Wu Chia-hsien (吳佳憲) says the number one thing he watches for is the intent of a certain move.

“We have to be able to tell if it was a complete attack — if the punch was properly executed and if it hit the other robot in a spot where it could fall over,” he says.

“If you accidentally topple the opponent during a part of a movement, such as retracting your fist from an unsuccessful attack — that doesn’t count.”

Wu says the rules have been refined over the years. He cites an example of some contestants’ strategy of moving and attacking sideways or while in a squatting position to avoid falling. That has since been banned, as Lu wants this to be realistically anthropomorphic as possible.

Lu says there are many “schools” in robot building — he believes in making and promoting bipedal robots, while others may favor wheels or tentacles

“That’s why we place such an emphasis on walking, fighting and staying upright,” he says. “When you watch movies, the robots are usually bipedal because they need to do many things, and with two feet you aren’t as limited by the terrain around you.”

Robotics instructor Liu Chun-ming (劉俊民) says that he always asks his students to physically perform a maneuver first before programming the robot to do it. Part of it is to look realistic, but also to teach them that if a human cannot do something, a humanoid robot should not either.

“If they perform the move and feel pain or discomfort, then they should not make the robot do it,” Liu says. “The robot cannot cry out in pain, but its motor might start smoking.”

DUELING MACHINES

The finals are in action by the afternoon — with 24 warriors standing. It’s a mix of demographics — ranging from fourth-graders to adults. There’s a group from Macau, and there’s one lone female, an engineering student at Chenghsiu University (正修大學), whose instructors and several classmates are also in the final fray.

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