While they may not be assembling the next Terminator or Robocop, the brainiacs behind the annual UNB Robotics Competition will definitely have sparks flying when they meet the weekend of Jan. 23 to 25.
Now in its 14th year, the competition will pit 16 student teams from across the country against each other in a challenge to complete secret tasks with a scratch-built robot.
But don’t expect a “BattleBots”-style throw-down — this competition emphasizes strategy and speed over combat (cool though it may be to watch robots smash each other to bits).
“As the competition lasts only a single weekend, participants are thrown into the deep end — no preparation, just building and tinkering fueled by adrenaline and plenty of caffeine,” said Mitchell Small, co-chair for the UNB Robotics Competition organizing committee.
“Competitors are given junk and tools to put together the robot as fast as possible with minimal time to spare. It’s cheap, it’s fun, it’s challenging and it’s a level playing field between those experienced in robotics and those who are just here to learn.”
Founded by engineering student Marc Cabot in 2001, the competition has not only become more popular, but has pushed technology forward as well.
Prior teams had their controllers hard-wired to their bots, but in 2009 the competition unveiled new UNB-developed wireless controls that let the robots be controlled over the expanded 150 square foot competition field.
While some may be expecting the robots to clash in battle, Small said that the UNB Robotics Competition is based around accomplishing difficult tasks in order to get points.
“We find this approach involves more strategy,” said Small. “As well, since these robots are built on the weekend of the event, they often aren’t made very strong, let alone able to attack each other.”
One element that makes the UNB Robotics Competition unique is the secret theme, with previous years revolving around challenges themed to The Hobbit, Mario Kart and even a zombie apocalypse.
“Every year it’s top secret, and I have the hardest time keeping it from people,” said Small. “Regardless, [this year’s theme] is the coolest theme we have ever done.”
While the breakneck pace of the competition doesn’t leave much time for socializing, over his four years of involvement Small is still astounded by the enthusiasm that participants bring to the table.
“My most memorable moments are when teams are celebrating a win after each round or being so engaged in the challenge in front of them,” he said.
For Small, robots aren’t just a hobby, they’re a passion. He studies mechatronics at UNB, a unique field combining mechanical and electrical engineering — essentially, the science of robots.
“Robotics is the next big thing that everyone should be involved in,” Small said. “Engineering, science and technology are what is driving our world now, and I think that everyone is starting to see the potentials of robotics and how simple it can be to make one.”