NHK broadcast a one hour program on the RoboCon 2004 competition that was held earlier this year in Chiba. The RoboCon competitions are a whole different animal than micromouse. Micromouse is basically a single player competition run against the clock. Of course teams sometimes form, and there is a lot of cooperation between competitors, but its basic characteristic is one designer/one robot. There are strict rules about not damaging the maze or doing anything outrageous. Bending the rules or cheating in any way is totally out of the question.
RoboCon, on the other hand, pits two teams against each other. Not only do they compete to complete the assigned task within a limited amount of time, but they also are free to interfere with each other, sometimes in aggressive and damaging ways. A lot of thought and engineering goes into the robot designs, and it's obvious that most of the designs take their competitors strategies into consideration.
The competition that aired today pitted teams against each other, two per match with the winning team from each match going on to the next match level. Each team designed several robots that would work cooperatively to capture their football and position it directly over the center of the target. At the same time they would try to block and inhibit the other team's robots. Frequently their strategy was to make sure the other team's robots wouldn't be able to reach the goal. Some teams even built helper robots that tossed soccer balls at their opponent's robots. This is the playing field:
The footballs looked like they were regulation size. Some teams designed grippers to hold them, some used baskets, and one had a helical worm gear that moved the football until it fell into a mobile conveyor belt.
This team's design resembled a folding centipede.
In this framegrab the robot just picked up the football with a circular gripper with rubber flaps and is transferring it to the conveyor belt. Notice that their design blocks the center of the target, so if their competitor needs access to the center area they are out of luck. Of course if their competitor gets to the center first, then they are shut out. This turned out to be the key between success and failure during several of the matches.
Here the football is on the conveyor belt starting its journey to the target. They won this match, but had problems during a later match when the robot moved a little too fast and the football bounced off the belt between two of the walls on the side.
This team's robot design included a mesh net that completely covered the center of the target.
Since the task was to position the football directly over the center of the target - without specifying the elevation, some of the teams came up with amazingly creative designs. The robot pictured below positioned itself around the base of the target, then deployed a huge plastic net. A helper robot then picked up the football and hurled it into the net automatically centering it. It was really a thing of beauty to watch in action. It worked very well early in the matches, but suffered from mechanical problems later and was eliminated.
There was lots of support from the team member's families as well. Cheering, shouting, and sometimes tears when their team lost a match. If it's at all possible I'm going to try and attend when they hold the 2005 event.