Friday, January 20, 2012

How to Run a Combat Robotics Tournament

This is admittedly a rather specialized topic.

I have been doing student robotics tournaments for over a decade now, and have had various degrees of involvement in larger robot events "back in the day".   At the present time the last big combat robotics event is Robogames out in San Francisco.  There are a variety of low profile small robot events and some really excellent non combat venues such as FIRST robotics and Vex.  For the younger kids there is also LegoLeague

I imagine the things I have learned (mostly the hard way) over the years could help people involved in such endeavours. 

So here goes.

1. Always start your event precisely on time.  Failure to begin on time always starts a chain reaction of further delays.  You must be ruthless but fair.  If a kid has a non operational machine he can be bumped into a later bracket.  He can be given some extra help.  But nobody stops an exact High Noon start to Machines Behaving Badly.  It is after all the traditional time for a show down.

2. Batteries.  Lots of batteries.  And battery chargers.  And battery testers.  Of all the "oops moments" when a competitor is instead revealed to be an inert paperweight, failure to keep an eye on battery power is the least excusable.  I tell students that one of the secrets of success in life is always showing up on time and with your batteries fully charged.

3. Volunteer help.  I have four or five veteran helpers who are gracious enough to turn up every year.  I have a Cage Boss who puts the robots in and out of the enclosed arena, making sure they are powered on and off appropriately.  He is good at his job.  You can tell, he has all ten upper extremity digits.  I have a Bracket Master.  He has some sort of advanced Electrical Engineering degree which enables him to change things around on the fly.  All kids get at least two fights in, and those who get the axe early are kept around to drive our bracket-filler "Victimbots".  I have a play by play guy who gets to put his English Major to its sole meaningful use.  I have a couple of Robot Hospital surgeons armed with glue guns and a sense of humor.  And I have often drafted spectators for minor jobs like time keeping.
Because sometimes even Robot Hospital can't save you.  Yes, I know the sign is misspelled.

4.  Have a rational, which is to say vague, judging system.  My cage boss, announcer and bracket guy are the judges.  They confer after a match that goes the distance.  Their word is Law.  There are no published criteria for the event, its just the opinions of three guys who have seen hundreds of robot fights.  On close calls I make the announcement myself, with a few preliminary compliments to both drivers/robots.

5. Final rounds should be final.  For the championship round we have no timer, no judges.  Both robots get freshly charged batteries.  Mad Max rules.  "Two bots enter.  One bot leaves."

6. Give the competitors a quick pep talk just before the event starts.  (11:50 on my time flow-sheet).  A few bromides about enjoying the sight of dismembered robot parts flying about.  More fun if it is your opponent, but pretty fun even if it is you.

7. Make it a family friendly event.  We often put a notice in the middle school newsletter and something in the local entertainment weekly.  Families turn up.  Malice filled younger siblings get to operate the arena hazards. 

8.  Move it along.  Three hours of full on action-in which I strive to have actual combat happening for 40% of that time-is better by far that five hours of desultory intermittent activity.  Nobody wants to stare at an empty arena.
Kind of like the Obelisk from 20001
I pride myself on being ready for all foreseeable contingencies at my robotics events.  That just leaves the unforeseen to deal with. 

Robotic mayhem begins at noon tomorrow, so this is the Eve of Destruction.  Brief posting after the event, but I will then be out of town for several days, so detailed info and video later in the week.

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