The art of robotics

Combining the computer science, industrial technology and physics departments at the University of Northern Iowa, members of the North American Robotics Association (NARA) create mechanical robots to compete in a mini-sumo robotics competition.

NARA and the UNI physics department hosted the sixth annual Mini-Sumo Robotics Competition on Thursday, April 28. This invitational competition saw the largest field ever, nearly 18 mini-sumo robots from around the U.S.

Meshing the art of sumo wrestling with the creation of robots, computerized robots are designed using basic mechanical writing, programming and electromechanic skills. The robots are entirely independent, powered by batteries and controlled by on-board microprocessors programmed by the students. The creators then battle their robots in a competition, similar to that of sumo wrestling. The program is a cost-effective and engaging approach to educational and club robotics.

"Students develop skills to build and program mini-sumo robots," said Cliff Chancey, professor and head of the physics department. "These are some of the same skills needed in advanced manufacturing and high-technology industries within Iowa and the U.S. The annual competition highlights the accomplishments of UNI students and allows them to compete against robots created by experts from across the US." 

"UNI robotics students have steadily improved the sophistication of their mini-sumo robots," said Chancey. "The competition makes UNI a national player in the important field of robotics education."

"Building a mini-sumo robot and getting it to operate and react on its own is a complex technical achievement," said Chancey. "Students must decide on what computer code to upload to the robot brain and where to place the robot's eyes. A mini-sumo robot that can successfully roll, feint and turn in response to an opposing robot's moves is a real-life application of physics and computer programming.  Building a successful mini-sumo robot shows students that the laws of physics are real and that economical and clever programming is important."

The photo above shows student Steven Rupp, with his robot Julie, a stealth robot completely surrounded by mirrors.  Julie is preparing to face Gizmo, built by Kevin O'Conner (also pictured).  Gizmo was the overall winner of the competition.  For the first time, UNI students succeeded in defeating defending champion ExSpurt, which was shipped to Cedar Falls by Rick Brooks, from Fort Wayne Indiana.