Robotic hobbiests -- SUB $1000 challenge?

mlw wrote:


I wouldn't say getting a good deal was cheating. I think it is a fair question. People scrounge all sorts of stuff cheap. Like if someone gets a broken down vacuum for free, would he have to put a value on the motor? Possibly it could all be overcome by having different categories? I do like the idea though.
Matthew
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<...snip...>
the
Just thought I would pipe in right here. The best way to determine "cost" is through reproducability. What would it cost anyone else to reproduce your robot. This adds a manufacturing element to things. The greatest ideas never see the light of day because it would simply cost too much to manufacture and the cost would outweigh value.
I like the grassroots idea to this. Similar to junkyard wars, etc.. the real competition is finding the SIMPLEST way to complete the task. $$ aren't really the problem; if you throw enough dollars at it, anything is possible. So, as an incentive not to cheat and to keep the cost at hobbyist levels, the answer is simple: The simplest implementation to solve the problem successfully is the 1st place winner. Another consideration could be robustness; can the machine only perform the task a few times reliably before it fails? These types of guidelines will attract ingenuity.
Any other categories of trophies could be based on more subjective things, like which design looks the coolest, etc...
Any winning entry must be reproducable through the use of easily obtainable parts. Skills aside, the average hobbyist should be able to build your robot. Encourage open designs, where others scan srutinize and develop on your ideas for future competitions. Of course, these designs are made available only AFTER the competition is complete.
My $.02 with a few nickels thrown in there.
Scott
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IIRC there was a class for go-kart racing where everyone was supposed to use a stock unmodified motor. To discourage modifications one of the rules required that you had to sell your motor to anyone who asked (for a standard price). Sort of levels the playing field a little !
Dave
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There is no such thing as a level playing field ! Rather than try to devise ever more complex rules, I'd go for a competition with just one rule "The judges decision is final".
I can see a whole bunch of advantages to this approach - it allows entrants to to be flexible and make the best use of facilities available to them - the judges would weigh what was achieved against what was possible. Many robot comps are so constrained that the entries might as well come from a kit.
Of course you need to find the right people to act as judges ...
Dave

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Dave Garnett wrote:

Nah Your approach guarantees a lot of talented folks will not enter.
Like it or not rules are needed and perhaps even more important classes i.e.
Experience brackets (because some with more experience should be able to do better).
Job brackets - if some is already a pro they both know more and have access to to parts etc.
Above all else I think you still need a sponsor with a little money because the effort to set up and run such a contest is fairly large.
LB
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--snip--
We shall see - the devil is in the detail, and I await the Competition and its Rules with interest. There are quite a few robotics competitions already, so I look forward to something special.
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Dave Garnett wrote:

Well, lets make this interesting, what are some ideas for "something special?"
I was thinking autonomous "mail delivery."
Setting up a room with cubicle dividers, each numbered, and have a robot be able to deliver a random envelope.
I want to focus on the "autonomous" more than the mechanical. The task will be to go from a central desk to the correct office, announce that they have mail, and wait for some predefined period of time (that will not be counted in overall time), and then return to the main desk.
For the first contest, I don't want mechanical complexity of arms or manipulators overwhelming the participents.
Teams can setup any sort of beacons they want, measure the field, etc. They just can't know in advance which cube they will have to deliver too. Once the contest has started, participants will not be able to adjust or modify (directly or remotely) their robot.
What do you think?
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mlw wrote:

Emphasize correct delivery and obstacle avoidance over speed. If it takes an efficient route at 'walking speed' that's fast enough. Perhaps multiple delivery.
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Dave Garnett wrote:

There in lies the problem. For the judges to "judge" there must be some set of rules by which they make their judgment.

The notion of "judges" without documented "rules" is a non-starter. For judges to judge, they must have rules from which to make their judgments. A contest with judges but no rules means that decisions are by definition arbitrary. That's no way to run a contest.
At first, however, I was seriously trying to incorporate your idea of fewer rules and more active judges, it sounded good, but as I thought about it, I think the whole notion is flawed. Let me explain:
I'm an engineer, I, like most hobbiests as well, like to know what's going on. If there are unknown rules that vary from judge to judge, it becomes impossible to know what the actual rules are. I think that it would be a disaster. The more I think about it, the more I think the rules should be VERY well documented and *who* is made judge should be of little consequence. A judge should understand the rules and apply them.
What you are talking about is less like a technical competition and more like a Gymnastic event where a number of judges rate the participents. I don't like this model either as I am always asking myself "why a 9.5 instead of a 9 or a 10? What are the criteria for these numbers?" When people win or lose by a few decimal points on a very subjective scale, who can really say that the "winner" was best?
I think if people enter any contest like this, they should have a handbook with which they can verify that they are in complience and win or lose on a tangible merit.
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I just breezed through, so I might have missed this, but would there be a purpose (i.e. build a robot to do *THIS*, or go through this specific course), or would it just be do whatever you want and the coolest one wins?
-Justin
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Justin wrote:

There would be a specific task that a robot should be able to do. Something like deliver mail to the correct cubicle or something.
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(I'm joining this topic much later than originally intended, but after spending a few hours on researching and composing a post, I stupidly let it get eaten by a web browser. Please pardon the fact that I am responding to the positions in several of the replies all at once.)
1) The Task From Outside the Box: Teleoperation Instead of Total Automation
a) The purpose of a goal...
As MLW points out, the task is the thing that defines the difficulty. Building a line-follower isn't a groundbreaking achievement. It's not EASY, but neither is it likely to be costly.
MLW suggested a "mail delivery" robot. There are already robots that do this. True, they aren't built by amateurs for under $1k, but it isn't rocket science and IMNSHO it isn't particularly inspiring, either.
There isn't a comp.teleoperatedmachines.misc, so I think that tossing teleoperated semi-autonomous devices into this box isn't too unreasonable. You could get pretty-close-to-real-world-applicable projects that are as starry-eyed as the X prize, but conceivably within the reach of a high-school club.
b) the case against full automation
.i. the "Grand Challenge"
The DARPA "grand challenge" is a really stupid idea. The army doesn't really want fully automated trucks. For one thing, if they ran into combat, they probably would not be able to distinguish a camouflaged soldier with a grenade from a bush.
They should also forget the idea of giving a set of coordinates to be traversed ahead of time. Some of the contestants used a pre-processed database of the terrain and, in the short period between being given the coordinates and the "go," they intended to massage the routing and obstacle avoidance information. In actual use when the supply vehicle is supposed to rendezvous with troops on the move, the destination would be likely to change, so the path would be likely to change as well.
What DARPA should be asking for is a machine that can do MOST of the course without guidance, but which can be teleoperated.
.ii. Man & Machine in Space
I'm against manned space exploration. I think that, until we get the kinks out of making a 20+ year closed-cycle environment, we meat products should stay in gravity wells. Once we are able to make roving habitats that, once they go up, they aren't *supposed* to come down, *then* we should restart manned space flight.
The rovers on Mars have accomplished amazing things, but I think they could have done much more if they had been designed to allow for complicated human interaction. They *did* use human interaction and intervention, but the provision of improved communications should have been done first (or at the same time) so that humans could help them do more. AFAIK, Humans did not take the rovers out and play with them in simulated Martian terrain, so the training level of the operators was pretty low, anyhow.
.iii. machine < man < man & machine < man + machine
I've heard the term "sliding autonomy" used for some teleoperated machines: they're autonomous to some extent, but they are run by a human via remote control. A concrete example might be a 'twebber' (TWo whEel Balancing Bot) that maintains its own balance and controls its own motors, but which is directed remotely. Another might be a robotic submarine camera which must be able to maintain position, attitude, orientation, and ballast on its own, but which goes to goal destinations provided to the operator.
.iv. if I were in charge...
Some contests that I would sponsor if I were wealthy would be for "tele-explorers." A extraterrestrial rover that operates with human interaction with a baud rate of, say, 32kbps and a one-way transmission lag of 200 seconds or so, would be a great example. An Antarctic explorer that did the same thing with 56kbps and a 3-second one-way lag would be another. A submarine that operated with no lag but a 4.8kbps transmission tunnel is another. Use your imagination and you can probably come up with at least four more that are within general technical reach and which would have a "Wow!" factor of greater than "a mailman" (no slur is intended against the Post Office, especially those employees who stock automated weaponry).
The instrumentation that would be needed for these devices is obviously completely out of range for a "budget limited" project. There will be no spectroscopes, diamond drills, etc., on an amateur budget, especially of your typical high-school student. The "get it there and so it can work" part, though, is not.
Any special equipment could be simulated. An XT-rover might be required to collect a specimen of soil from three different kinds of places--perhaps marked with large orange targets--and put them into the "analysis tank" (a cylinder of specified size, perhaps a coffee can).
One could argue that he device could be little more than a "remote control toy". I could reply that just building this part is already an "amateur hard" project, but that's not the big reason that this contest is "aiming high:" the part that would make this contest different is the lag and bandwidth limitation. The "robot" would be placed in an opaque tank (i.e., a box) and communicate (by cable simulating RF?) only through whatever the student had built into it, using only those sensors on board.
Sensors are what make for a useful device. A robot that contains none could be called autonomous, but it would not be what I am talking about when I say "autonomous robot." Creative use of sensors--which almost by definition means "human" at the current state of AI--is what makes a useful device more useful.
To me, that sounds like a really terrific contest with lots of potential for real research--even by high schoolers--to occur. That's what the X prize was about. It wasn't just to prove that you could get to "space" without a government paying the bills. It was also to put together something that actually might be able to be used again, and that might actually make civilian space travel a reality. Exploration of the Earth, for all its successes, still has left over 80% of the planet unexplored (especially if you count the part below the crust; unless you are in orbit, there's a place 15 miles from you no human has ever seen: straight down). This sort of technology has the potential to allow us to do things that we can't even begin to imagine.
2) The Journal
Part of reproducibility is to keep a notebook. I feel that a journal of some kind describing the parts, techniques, failures and equipment should be a big part of the scoring...perhaps as much as 90%(!). (A blog falls into the category of "journal" in this context.)
Once you "handicap" for resources and score for the journal, it should be possible for a robot to win that performs very poorly on the task itself or breaks during the contest. A teleoperated machine that was constructed for $84 using three hacked remote-control toys and a soldering iron should beat a gizmo that cost $2300 and was built at a machine shop, even if the latter were first place in time-to-complete-task, and the former only succeeded one out of three tries.
First off, research isn't research unless it's written down. You can't reproduce something if you don't know how it was produced in the first place. Process documentation is a good habit to inculcate.
Secondly, the "levelness of the field" regarding resources and resourcefulness can be evaluated more thoroughly. A notebook could serve to document total amout spent plus "free" donated (or fabricated) items, services and equipment. (See #3 "Level Fields," below)
Third, it enhances the "contest" feel of it because people can see the blood, sweat and tears in black and white. If you watch a plastic box on wheels deliver mail, there isn't much excitement there. If you can read about it in detail, though, it makes the participants much more vivid in the mind of the observers.
Two measures of success in a contest are: "does it inspire people to do more and better?" and "does it make someone else thing, 'Wow. That was cool. Maybe I should sponsor a contest!'" With a notebook or journal, this could change a robot contest from the excitement level of watching a chess match to something on the order of a tale of inventiveness, perserverence, and challenges overcome.
3) Level Fields
I think setting a dollar limit is unrealistic. For one thing, if I go to the junkyard and pry a hydraulic system from a car and pay $5 for it, what's the value of that? If that works, and next year someone goes and pays $180 for it "off the shelf," how would you know it wasn't salvaged equipment? If a guy talks someone into fabricating a $6 piece of ABS into a part for him using a CNC mill, should he be punished for access to superior equipment, even if he generated the CAM files himself?
I agree that the "external" resources, both physical (e.g., oscilloscope, CNC mill, a fat wallet) and mental (e.g., dad's a mechanical engineer, mom's an electrician, and sister Sue has a welding company; close proximity to the library of a major University) make for an unlevel playing field. That's life.
I agree that people who "make do" with less should get more credit. There should be guidelines as to what is considered "more," and these should be *subjectively* evaluated based on the journal. There is no objective rule that would really give what I think those who have expressed opinions about the "more with less" they want that would also be practical and meet the "fair and reasonable" criterion.
Just going by "reproducibility" isn't totally fair. If I get out my knife and whittle a doohickey, then write down 2"x4"x8' pine board: $5, it is unlikely that you could reproduce my doohickey for that price. Plus, I'm using my neighbor's lathe to get it in roughly the right shape. How much does that count? My dad drew up a prototype drawing of the doohickey just before he went to Sweden to pick up his Nobel in Chemistry. By the way, the doohickey is coated in an electrically controlled adhesive that he cooked up for me. Do you count off for that?
The idea mentioned regarding "anyone can buy anyone else's motor for a fixed price" was probably intended as a philosophical approach than as a real suggestion, but let me set it to rest just in case: we aren't talking about a contest that is based on one specific skill. We're talking about design + engineering + crafting + programming + operational training (for the teleoperated version, anyway). Apples aren't orangutangs, so an exchange will never be equitable.
The goal is to measure the *team's* ability to do a lot with a little; to have something fun and exciting; to produce new knowledge in robotics, both for the participants and the world at large; and to reward a behavior of inventiveness, perseverance and productive labor. Criteria should be set out so that people can prioritize their effort accordingly, but I do not believe there is a way to make it completely objective and/or rigid. A journal would allow for the subjective evaluation to be openly observed, and "openly observed" isn't too far from "objective."
Perhaps the judges could narrow it down to three and the voting could be done with a 1-900 number. Let vox populi make the final determination based on the journals (or journal highlights).
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spiegel wrote:

While reading this, I'm not sure I agree. While I really appreciate the time and thought you put into this post, to me, anyway, I think targeting what people want today is not what we want to do. Some of the great advancements in science has been, to the consternation of professional engineers and scientists, from hobbiests.

To me, "Teleoperation" is boring. Maybe not so to others, but to me it is a baseline functionality that offers few interesting challenges.

A line follower *is* easy, a lego mindstorm robot can do it out of the box.

The actual task is less interesting than the challenges involved with doing it.
A mail robot that can deliver mail to one of [N] rooms when it is not known by the builder, in advance, to which room the operator will be sending the robot, is an interesting and easily defined challenge who's solution is quite valuable in understanding and implementing spacial navigation of robots in a 3d environment.

Tele-operated machines are far too useful to be fun, they are not actually robots. They've coopted the word "robot" because media idiots don't know what to call them, but they are not robots.

I am also not interested in helping the military make digital soldiers.
[snip]

I disagree here. Great things are learned when people are willing to risk their lives.
[snip]

Not a robot, per se'
[snip]
I think there may be a class of people interested in doing tele operated stuff, but it isn't robotics.

Just stop, this is fun. This is about not being engineers and scientists, its about a hobby. It isn't to inspire others, it is about fun. There is no prize but a small trophy and the fact you did it.
[snip]

Price ain't a perfect system, but as said, this is an informal challenge that requires an amount of honesty and trust. Like pinewood derby.
[snip]

Yes, it is a very multi-dimentional chalenge. Your choice of trade-offs, your mechanical design, etc.

That's a bit more lofty than I would have stated it, but essentially correct.

The journal idea, for me at least, is a non-starter. I wouldn't do it.

I don't like the idea of a vote. It then becomes a popularity contest. I like a good set of rules and goals by which the winner can be evaluated. Any subjectivity should be on the part of "does this robot qualify for this contest?" or "were the rules followed during the contest?" Anything more than that, its just a beauty contest.
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I'd be happy if there was a place in NY where I can show off my robot(s) and look at other peoples.
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