Battlebots Prepare to Invade
SF State Hosts International RoboGames


Few SF State students expect to find spinning buzz saws, radio-controlled flame-throwers or soccer-playing robot dogs hanging out at school during spring break recess.

But on March 24, a small army of weapon-wielding battle bots and other artificial athletes will invade campus, as the international RoboGames competition descends on San Francisco.

Billed by organizers as the largest robotics exposition and demonstration in the country, this year’s RoboGames competition will host over 400 robotic contestants - and, of course, their human creators - from nations as far away as Singapore, Iran and Japan.

Planned events during the four-day robotic extravaganza include a combat competition, where robo-warriors go servo-to-servo and claw-to-claw, a sumo wrestling challenge, and three types of robot soccer.

According to organizers, RoboGames promises something for just about everyone. Techno-elites can marvel at the metallic ingenuity on display, perhaps picking up an idea or two for their own dreams of mechanical domination. Those without a deep interest in the electronics though can simply watch robots clobber each other in a gladiatorial spectacle even the ancient Romans would probably enjoy.

RoboGames organizer and SF State professor David Calkins said he started RoboGames as a way to get robot builders talking to one another. Calkins said he hoped the challenge of large-scale competition might encourage participants to share ideas and help advance the state of the art in the robotics.
And, of course, they have a little fun at the same time.

“I noticed that robot builders never talked to each other across categories,” Calkins said. “So if you build a combat robot, battle bots or something, you’re probably a really good welder, a really good metal smith, but you don’t know too much about artificial intelligence (AI). If you were a sumo-guy, you’d be really good with artificial intelligence, but you’re probably a crappy welder.

“I’d give (builders) resources - write to this guy, subscribe to this email list, things like that - and they’d never do it.”

Then, said Calkins, inspiration struck.

“(I thought to myself), ‘Why don’t we bring it all into one place, at one time?’” Calkins said. “All of the robot competitions - the robot soccer, the combat guys, the robo-one guys - everybody.’

“They can be in the same place at the same time. I can put a rhetorical shotgun to their heads and say, ‘Talk to each other, boneheads.’ And at the last RoboGames, that’s exactly what they did.”

But Calkins said putting together an international robot Olympiad hasn’t been easy. In the first annual RoboGames event held last year, Calkins said he spent $14,000 of his own money to host the games.
“I don’t make any money on these things - I end up paying for it,” Calkins said.

And there are legal issues too.

Until two weeks ago, RoboGames went by the name ‘RobOlympics,’ a term that apparently angered officials with the United States Olympic Committee (USOC). Calkins, who is the current president of the Robotics Society of America, the official organization hosting the RoboGames, received a cease-and-desist letter from the USOC threatening to shutdown the competition unless he changed the name.

According to Scott Gerien, a trademark attorney with the San Francisco firm of Owen, Wickersham and Erickson, it’s common for the USOC to go after anyone using the name ‘Olympics’ as a designator for an event.

“The Olympics present a unique situation because they have special protection,” said Gerien. “(The USOC is) pretty aggressive about enforcing the rights, no matter what.

“They can say, ‘We have this law, they’re using the word ‘Olympic’, we win. It’s a slam-dunk for them.”
While Calkins was reluctant to change the name, he felt that SF State officials, who also received a letter from the USOC, left him little choice. Ellen Griffin, spokeswoman for the college, indicated in an email on March 4 that the school would not allow the competition to continue until Calkins resolved the name issue with the USOC.

“I’m really surprised that they (SF State officials) are being so weak-kneed about this issue,” Calkins said. “We’ve got people coming from a total of 12 different countries - it’s not something that we can just cancel.”

But now, after a hurried name change on web sites, flyers and promotional material, the dispute with the USOC appears to be over.

For local robot builders like Micah Leibowitz, the money and legal issues take a back seat to the challenge of creating a combat robot. Leibowitz, a student at Laney College in Oakland, said he just hopes his two robots can put on a good show during the RoboGames.

“I’ve got this guy, a 3-pounder, entered and a 30-pounder (as well),” said Leibowitz “The 3-pounder is called ‘Sandman’ and the 30-pounder is called ‘Rover’.”

While Leibowitz said that Sandman is a standard design, Rover is an attempt at a trying something new.

“I’ve got an electronically controlled flipper (on Rover),” Leibowitz said. “If I can get the other guy two or three feet in the air, I’ll be happy. I’m trying for show.”


On March 24, robots will be brought to SF State to compete in a robotics battle competition.




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