Robogames ’17

Apr 23 Sunday, Pleasanton CA

The indoor lights came to life as the Sun seemed to fade away into the horizon. The lack of commotion was a stark contrast to the hustle and bustle of the past few days. The population inside the arena had dwindled to just the organizers and a few teams here and there. One could even hear faint noises of metal clashing with metal from the adjacent arena where some combat events were still in progress. These are some of the things that we might have noticed if we had paid attention to our surroundings. But at that moment, a screen covered in code and a 45 cm tall metallic structure was the only thing that mattered to us. It was the last event. And our last chance for the coveted Gold Medal.

A Few Days Back

We had just landed in San Francisco a while ago and for many of us, it was the first time abroad. The streets. The billboards. The cars. Everything was fascinating. We were staying at a cozy suburban home in Hayward. Polished wooden floors, walls adorned with paintings and an elegant piano in the main hall. The house was quite neat and tidy. That is until we started working. Bubble Wrap, Unpacked Boxes, Screwdrivers, Batteries, Screws etc. were all sprawled across the floor. Within a day, the house pretty much resembled a workshop. Some parts of our robot were bent and damaged during transit. Some parts needed to be repainted. There were circuits to be made and codes to be debugged. So there was a lot of work cut out for us. One might assume that the obvious thing to do when coming to a new city, halfway across the world would be to go out and explore it. But we didn’t. The day we landed, we went out for a while and bought a few days worth of food supplies. And then for the next 3 days, we locked ourselves in our home and worked as much as we could. The food was one aspect to consider. While some of us devoured anything edible within their radius, many others were not so flexible and had a hard time adapting to it. Another important aspect was time. Due to Daylight Savings Time, the Sun used to set a lot later than what we’d expect. What might seem like 4 PM in India would actually be around 7 PM here. So before one would realize, the day would already be over. And just like that, days went by quickly and before we knew it, it was D-Day.

21 April Friday

We pushed the door and made our way into the arena. And that is when reality sunk in. That we really had come 8000 miles away from home to compete here. There were already many teams inside. We had been to many competitions before but the atmosphere seemed much more intense here. Teams had come from countries across the world like Brazil, South Korea, Turkey and so on. Needless to say, we were quite nervous. But later on, we came to know that we don’t have any of our events today. This was a great advantage as we had an entire day to test our bots and make sure everything was working fine. 22 April Saturday And there we were yet again, at the same place. But this time we were more prepared. Four out of our six events were scheduled for today, so it was going to be quite hectic. The first two events were the Freestyle events where bots were allowed to showcase any skill or ability. Our flagship was a “Shadow” robot. That is, it would imitate the user operating it. You raise your hand or take a step forward and the bot would do the same. In freestyle events, the presentation is quite important. So to add some flair, we gave it a cowl, a chest plate, a cape and finally a matte black paint job to top it all off. And thus our bot had a perfect Batman costume. The audience (which included many kids) was thrilled to see a miniature Batman robot walking around and throwing punches in the air. For the second freestyle event, we made a bot play tic tac toe against human opponents. Not everything went smoothly though. There were some occasional technical glitches during both the events but our Batman bot managed to bag us a Silver Medal. As we started working again we discovered there was a huge problem in our robot’s communication system. But luckily, for some reason, the remaining events were postponed for the next day.

23 April, Sunday

Our eyes were heavy. We had stayed up the most of the night trying to fix all remaining issues. But we were determined as the most important events were scheduled for today. First up was Biped Race. The rules are simple. The bot that covers a distance of 2m in the shortest time wins. Yesterday our bot could barely take a few steps before it falls. But today, after making a lot of fixes it was dashing around with newfound vigor. We managed to come a close second, missing out on a gold by just a few milliseconds. The remaining events were not so simple. There was Obstacle Run where the bot has to traverse through an obstacle course and reach the finish line. This was immediately followed by Sumo, where the objective, as the name suggests, is to push the opponent’s bot outside a circular ring. We weren’t able to complete Obstacle Run but we did receive a Bronze Medal for Sumo. By this time we were completely exhausted. We had 3 Medals; Two Silver and One Bronze. But we still weren’t content. Because deep in our hearts we knew that no matter how many medals we had, what truly mattered was a Gold Medal. And our last shot was Penalty Kick where the bot has to kick a ball into a goal post. Sounds simple right? Not so much. The robot’s algorithm is as follows: scan in all directions, find the ball, align the body to the ball, approach the ball, scan and find goalpost, again realign body to face goalpost, look down and align legs to the ball and then finally look up and kick the ball towards the goalpost. In the last three years, no team had managed to successfully complete Penalty Kick in Robogames, so we had quite a daunting task ahead of us. We this in mind, we began practicing for Penalty Kick. We calibrated our cameras, modified our code a bit and placed the bot on the Penalty Kick arena. It took one step towards the ball. Good. Then another step. Great. And then it froze. Apparently, some motor randomly stopped responding. We sighed and reset the bot and began from the start. One step. Second step. Another step. It managed to find and reach the ball. And just as it was about to kick the ball, it fell. One motor had randomly lost torque, causing the bot to collapse. Random issues which we had no control on kept happening. After a while, the judges came over to evaluate our performance.

We had around 3 attempts. First attempt. The bot again froze in between. That was quite heartbreaking for us. We had tried all this while but nothing seemed to work. At that point, we did feel somewhat hopeless but we decided to continue regardless. Second Attempt. The bot managed to approach the ball and slightly nudge it but the kick wasn’t strong enough. It started scanning for the ball again. It couldn’t find the ball. But a minute later it somehow managed to find the ball. It attempted to kick the ball but it missed. We had almost given up hope. But out of nowhere, it kicked the ball. And the ball slowly and gently rolled into the goalpost. Euphoria. That moment was utter Euphoria. We just couldn’t believe it that our bot managed to pull it off. But more than happiness what we truly felt was relief. Relief that the competition was over and all the hard work we had put in the past few days, weeks and months had finally come to fruition. It was as if a huge burden had been lifted off our shoulders. We stood on the pedestal to receive our medal. Then we held The Tricolor while Our National Anthem played in the background. It was truly a proud moment for us. Over the next two days, we finally caught up on our sleep and went sightseeing around the city. Our minds were finally relaxed and at peace. And just like that, it was time to leave. When we landed back in India, the first thing that we felt was doubt. Had we really been to a place thousand miles away from home? Had we really won those medals? The entire trip seemed like a dream. But this doubt was eventually overcome by a feeling of determination. Because although this competition was over, there was more to learn, more robots to build and even bigger competitions to compete in. This was just the beginning.