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Last Updated: Thursday, 25 March, 2004, 09:22 GMT
Robot clash reveals cultural divide
It takes a lot of human sweat and toil to get robot athletes ready for Olympic-class competition, as Clark Boyd found out at the first international Robolympics in San Francisco at the weekend.

Robot soccer
Cameras help the robots to score
The robo-athletes in San Francisco came in all shapes and sizes. And they came from 11 different nations, including Japan, Germany and Canada.

The event, hosted by the Robotics Society of America (RSA), included robot football, maze-solving and even sumo wrestling.

"One of the goals is to cross-pollinate, so that a guy building a combat robot can meet a really good programmer who builds autonomous sumo robots," said David Calkins, president of the RSA.

Robot combat proved a popular draw and involved two robots from the same weight class fighting for dominance in a boxing ring.

Humans with remote controls directed the action from outside the ring.

Cultural differences

The competitions seemed to break down along cultural lines. The Japanese robots reigned supreme when it came to sumo-wrestling, while the European teams showed off their skills on the football pitch.

Robot contestant
Some robots are designed to intimidate
As for the American machines, they specialised in demolishing the living hell out of each other in one-on-one robot combat.

California native Pat Lindstrom and his buddies have put US$25,000 of their own money, not to mention 3,000 hours of engineering, into their 340 pound, super-heavyweight, Blue Max.

The robot has got a flat, rectangular shape, with big tyres on the four corners. A wedge on the front enhances Blue Max's smashing potential.

A stencil on the back of Pat Lindstrom's behemoth says it is a good day to die.

"Our plan is to attack the guy at 20 or 30 miles per hour, and slam 'em into the wall," said Mr Lindstrom.

Balky 2, a robot created by Yayoi Matsunaga was not made for fighting.

At 18 inches tall, it is designed to climb stairs, turn somersaults and be a bit more human.

"The combat robots are impressive but they can't be a part of human's daily life," she said.

"We're trying to make robots that are a little more friendly, that are communicative, can make eye contact and things."

Doing it for themselves

Other robot builders at the Robolympics were looking to creating autonomous robots that function largely outside of human control.

"You'll stand back and turn on a switch and you hope to god that your robot does what it's designed to do," said Canadian attendee David Hrynkiw.

Robot contestant
Others are more friendly
"You trust in the world of bit-gods and you're trusting the robot to do it itself," he added.

Mr Hrynkiw's robots are mini-sumo wrestlers. They weigh just over a pound, and are only a few inches tall.

They are not fat, and they do not throw salt into the ring before a match. But like human sumo wrestlers, these guys take care of business quickly.

They wheel around the ring until they bump into each other. One of them manages to push the other outside the tiny ring and that's about it.

The robotic football competition is more complex. Teams of five autonomous robots play on a small field.

The robots are aided by cameras, hanging above the action.

"The info goes from the camera to the computer, so the program knows where each robot is, and it knows the ball is, where the speed is, and also the direction," said Marko Wickrath, who is part of the German football team.

"It runs through strategies and calculates future positions. Then a transmitter gives the robots the positions."

This kind of autonomous robot technology is already proving useful in the real world. For example, some robots can be trained to search buildings for earthquake survivors.

But the contestants at the Robolympics admit they would be more likely to settle for robots that can clear snow from the driveway

Or bring them a cold beer at the end of a long day of competition.

Clark Boyd is technology correspondent for The World, a BBC World Service and WGBH-Boston co-production.

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