Metal-on-Metal Robot Fighting
Bipedal Robot fights? You bet, and it’s more than just silliness. It is a powerful integrated and educational learning experience that is driving the field of robotics hard towards the future. Robots probably will do very little fighting because their purpose will be to support us as a society.
Never-say-never, however, as there could be people with a lot of skill, time, and money that could turn it into a substitute for human boxing… For reference, have a look at the CGI-enhanced Hugh Jackson and Evangeline Lilly movie called REAL STEEL.
Japan loves its robots, of that there is no doubt. They have pervaded their society in so many ways. They are even in use as healthcare workers that are amazingly gentle and powerful.
Japan has a rapidly aging population, with more elderly per capita than many nations. Assisting elders into and out of bed, baths, wheelchairs, in physiotherapy for walking, and so much more, has resulted in physical strains and injuries to younger assistant workers in hospitals, hospices, elder care facilities, and palliative care homes. Robot to the rescue in technologically advanced Japan!
This one example, designed to resemble a friendly looking bear, has a reason for looking that way: it is charming and non-threatening to Alzheimer’s patients! It can gently pick someone up from the floor (floor level beds are common in Japan); it can support them as they practice walking; it can move them to x-ray machines, or move them from bed to wheelchair with ease.
Always under the supervision of a human, of course, these machines eliminate repetitive strain injuries for the staff. Workers can accomplish much more, free of injury themselves, when they are assisted by these hyper-competent robots.
In 2005, Italian designers Massimo Banzi and David Cuartielles created Arduino, a simple microcontroller that made robot design much simpler. There was a lot of independent creativity using such tools. It wasn’t until more sophisticated tools like Britain’s Raspberry Pi, an entire computer on a small PCB (Printed Circuit Board) came along that robots became stunningly capable, and even semi-autonomous. Raspberry Pi devices are known as SBCs, or Single Board Computers easily exceed the capabilities of the computers guiding Apollo spacecraft which took men to the Moon in the 1960s and 70s.
Once technology advanced sufficiently, it was only natural for ambitious young designers to start creating their own robots back in the early 2000s. Teaching them to function gave them enviable skills in early programming. Of course with Japan’s long love and history of monster fighting films, robot fighting was a very small step to imagine.
The questions became:
- Can a robot move reliably? Wired robots with wheels and remote controllers arose. It was a stable platform not much different than today’s remote controlled cars.
- Can a robot identify a target and interact with it? It soon turned out that the answer was “yes”. Computer Vision opened up a world of possibilities, but required a real full-sized computer, not something that would fit on most early robots.
- Can a robot use a wireless controller and on-board power? It turns out this was an easy step to take especially with modern high-power batteries. Controllers akin to XBOX and Play Station proved to have enough options to control a robot.
- Can non-wheeled robots move reliably? Everything from spiders to centipedes to water-capable fish and eels were created and have now evolved into scientific undersea explorers that survey the ocean depths for months at a time, surfacing to report their findings periodically.
- Can a bipedal robots stand, articulate, balance, and most importantly, walk reliably? You bet they can! Developers and hobbyists alike built everything from tiny desktop models all the way up to near-human size robots like NASA’s Valkyrie, who is destined to be a Mars explorer, and act as a rescue unit. It has LIDAR point cloud vision on the head, vision cameras located on head, abdomen, wrists, thighs, shins, and feet, as well as sonar. It’s the closest thing to “being there” for the robot operators as is possible.
What Can They Do Now?
The truth is they are getting so good that they can do almost anything a human can do. Sure, they’re still just “dumb machines” and have no volition of their own.
Without a programmer they’re little more than hunks of metal and plastic, but it the right hands, they are amazing… Take this Boston Dynamics [video] example of what might be called extreme athleticism in the form of parkour—something most humans being couldn’t do without years of practice…
To really embarrass the humans, look at this [video] that would put your own dancing skills to shame. I don’t think I’ll be going out to any clubs tonight, just in case there are any robots there…
Robo One Competition
You may have seen television shows like Robot Wars recently. Robots of any description were pitted against one another to the point of destruction. They were almost always wheeled, fast, and equipped with weapons like axes, hammers, and chainsaws.
Japan had a different outlook. First the robots were to be bipedal—walking like a human—and the objective was simply the knock-down/take-down of an opponent, not its pointless destruction. During the competition they are expected to be able to stand up again, too, once they have been knocked down.
The knee-high robots may be diminutive, but they generally use tactics that are far more reminiscent of Tai Chi, performed artfully, rather than with pure, destructive brutality. Robots shuffle sideways, advance and retreat, always looking for an advantage to deal a point scoring blow.
As a consequence, the martial nature manifests itself much like a martial arts competition, with judges scoring, and points awarded in a similar way. It has now been going on successfully since 2002, drawing individuals from all over the world to compete for the chance to be in the championship round.
It has a substantial following, too, being televised and drawing crowds to attend the event in person and to cheer on their favorite competitors. Everyone wants to see who can punch better, grab and throw, leg kick, or sweep better, or whatever new tactics have been developed.
You’ll often see Robo-One competitions running at similar times but with different names to designate classes of the robot competitors. One may be called the 38th Robo-One [video from R-O#34. Look at the amazing finishing move!], presented this year on Sept/4/2021, to identify its version since the first contest, but you’ll also see divisions for less robust competitors called the 22nd Robo-One Light [video] (running concurrently on Sept/4/2021 with Robo-One this year), or the fascinating Robo-One Auto [video], which started in 2017, where the robots fought autonomously for the very first time!
There are other leagues, such as Robo-One Kendo [video] (stick fighting), and even immobile platform robots, not intended to move, to demonstrate the basics of Kendo, called simply Robo-One Ken [video].
Learning About Robots
Institutions such as MIT now have courses you can take to learn the tech, skills, and strategies to participate in these contests. This means it is getting some serious attention because it is so useful for consolidating the skills you need for a career in robotic development.
Don’t think you have to wait until college or university, however. There are plenty of schools in every part of the world that incorporate robots into the curriculum. That includes high schools, and even primary schools teaching the rudiments of programming with simplified learning tools.
So will we see full-sized, bipedal, humaniform robots fighting it out in the ring one day? It all depends on how dedicated the developers are, if benefactors with a lot of money are genuinely interested in the sport, and if they can develop a market.
Superficially, it seems the interest already exists with these mini-fighting machines. We currently support very expensive sports, such as with multi-million dollar racing cars that often get severely damaged, patched up and put back into action, so what is to prevent robot aficionados from doing precisely the same thing?
Will we see some robot “coming to life”, “developing intelligence”, and looking to “kill all humans”? Probably not… People have some strange misconceptions about artificial intelligence (AI).
Things don’t just happen. Emotions require glands, chemicals, and biological brains to be affected by them, in order to make them happen—something robots will never have. We would have to program a robot or AI into wanting to do something.
It won’t have emotions or desires unless we provide them, so don’t worry. If we want to build battling robots for our entertainment, let’s just do it!